Ever since he was a baby, becoming a zookeeper has been Jason Dunne’s biggest dream. The 10 year old, who has a rare condition called congenital myopathy, recently had his wish come true.
Jason, who is a full-time wheelchair-user and is fed through a tube, underwent spinal fusion surgery three months ago, his 20th operation since birth.
While normally very anxious prior to surgery, this time there was an air of excitement about him due to Make-a-Wish Ireland having arranged for him to try out his dream job at Dublin Zoo a few days before the procedure.
Wearing a special zoo hat, Jason was guided around the grounds in the Phoenix Park, helping to feed the animals and learning much more about them.
"He is completely obsessed with animals," said his mother, Michelle Carr. "He grilled the zookeepers on their knowledge of whichever animal was in front of him.
‘Feed the elephants’
“So we got to feed the elephants, the sealions, the penguins, the red pandas. And then animals that we couldn’t physically feed ourselves, like the lions, tigers and wolves, the zookeeper brought the meat right up to the glass so Jason could see.”
Ms Carr said the tiger got so excited by the food that he lost a whisker while running to get it, which was given to Jason to keep.
“It was such a magical day. The pandemic was really tough on him and you just could just see the sparkle coming back into him [at the zoo].”
Like many charities, the Covid-19 pandemic has profoundly affected Make-a-Wish Ireland in terms of fundraising and carrying out its work with seriously ill children.
Susan McQuaid O’Dwyer, chief executive of the charity, said “every single day is a challenge at the moment”. The pandemic restrictions have meant the charity has had to say no to some children’s wishes for the first time in its almost 30-year history, she said.
Make-A-Wish Ireland last year granted 56 wishes and is on target for 100 this year. However, there are more than 200 children on the charity’s waiting list.
Ms McQuaid O’Dwyer said the charity’s work helps to “bring a sparkle” to children by realising their dreams.
“Sometimes it’s an iPhone, a game, to be a builder or a princess, to get a tractor. It’s whatever is in the child’s imagination and that’s brought to life,” she said. “A lot of parents say they saw their child be themselves again. And a lot of children say they felt like a normal family again. It really is just about bringing a bit of magic to these children and families.”
The charity is running a 'Believe in Magic' Christmas fundraising appeal, with donations from the public being used to "make a difference to a child's life and bring a smile to their face".
It is now three months since Jason had his day behind the scenes at the zoo and his mother said he still talks about the experience almost every day.
“One of his speech and language therapists asked him yesterday what he wanted to be when he grew up. And he said ‘I’m a zookeeper. I’ve already been made a zookeeper, so I can’t be anything else’,” Ms Carr said. “It was an experience that I’ll never forget, so I can only imagine how he feels.”