Swimming with the pigs: Make-A-Wish Foundation makes a dream come true

For 7-year-old Jillian Crockett, of Westminster, a tropical island vacation seemed impossible, especially considering the host of medical issues she deals with daily. But then the Make-A-Wish Foundation stepped in, proving that sometimes dreams really do come true.

"For everything we do and everything we plan, we have to consider if there is a hospital nearby, is there a doctor, and can we get to medical supplies?" Jillian's mom, Rachel Crockett said.

Jillian suffers from a list of medical issues, including a form of epilepsy called Boose syndrome.

"She has neuropathy that effects all of her extremities and gives her burning and pain and can cause her to have difficulty in balancing and walking at times," Crockett said. "She has neurogenic disorders and a rare and undiagnosed genetic disorder that affects her central nervous system. She gets medical care every three hours. Our lives revolve around her care."

So, Crockett was surprised to get a call from the Make-A-Wish Foundation and learn that her mother had nominated Jillian. Then, she was surprised again when she heard Jillian's wish.

"About two weeks before the Make-A-Wish coordinators came to talk to her we saw a video that was going around about the swimming pigs," Crockett said. "She'd watched the video twice but never said anything more about it, so we were all taken by surprise when she said she wanted to go swim with the pigs. Before that she'd always talked going to Disney and seeing all the princesses."

In the weeks leading up to the trip, Jillian never wavered about wanting to see the pigs who live on the uninhabited island officially named Big Major Cay in Exuma, the Bahamas. Known as Pig Island, it's home to a colony of feral pigs that frequently swim out to meet boats, looking for a handout. Legend says the pigs were dropped off many years ago by a group of sailors who planned to return but never did. But another story told by locals says the swine swam ashore from a shipwreck.

Crockett said the March 29 to April 3 trip was amazing from start to finish. Her husband, Dan, remained home while she and her mom, Bobbi Savaliski, took Jillian and Jillian's 4-year-old brother, Andy. The foursome flew from Baltimore to Florida and from there to Staniel's Cay, a small island neighboring Pig Island.

"You can walk the entire island in an hour or so," Crockett said. We were in a tiny two-story cottage. There are only seven or eight cottages on the island. You could see Pig Island from Staniel's Key and it was just a five-minute boat ride to get there."

Soon after arriving, they were off to see the pigs. Crockett said a guide took them the first time, but the family returned in a boat that came with the house, driving it on their own to Pig Island and other neighboring islands.

"The pigs who came swimming out to the boat were huge sows. Jillian's eyes got really big when she saw them coming because, they were so big," said Crockett.

Added Jillian: "Some were big and some were little. They were pushy but they were nice."

Crockett said the guide gave them bags of food for the pigs and instructed them to feed only from the boat.

"He reminded us that the pigs are scavengers, and they'll get the food however they can," Crockett said. "You feed them in the water because then they can't jump up and knock you down. If you hold your hand out and say, 'No food' they go away. They know."

Jillian liked the pigs, but she liked the iguanas on Iguana Island even more. And she liked driving the boat, too.

"I did good driving the boat," said Jillian. "I went, 'Yahhhh!' when I cranked it up to full speed, and then I let go and it went to hardly any speed at all. I would like to go back tomorrow," she added, very matter-of-factly.

Crockett said the iguanas were used to having visitors.

"I wasn't afraid," Jillian said. "One bit me when I was trying to feed the little one. It didn't hurt. It was sort of like a nick. And some wouldn't let you touch their tales."

With so much to see, the Crockett family adventure didn't end there.

"There were also nurse sharks and stingrays inside a cove at the resort. The sharks have teeth but not sharp ones," Crockett said. "They are bottom feeders that are quite harmless. At first, Jillian was nervous about touching them, but by the time we left she was fine. The restaurant uses lobster tails and throws the rest of the lobster in for the stingrays and sharks so they come and go at will. There was a sign for us, but you went into the water on your own."

Besides Pig and Iguana islands, the family also visited the Exuma Land and Sea Park and went to Warwick Wells, where the complete skeleton of a whale that washed up on the shore in 1996 is on display on the beach.

"There is a little museum there that talks about the dangers of polluting the water, because that's how the whale died," Crockett said. "It had plastic in its system from garbage a ship had dumped. The museum is about environmentalism and why it is important not to dump and pollute."

According to Crockett, Warwick Wells is a great place to snorkel, but on the day that they visited the water was too choppy. So, their guide took them to a coral reef where they dropped food into the water, bringing myriad beautiful fish to meet them.

Crockett couldn't say enough about how wonderful the Make-A-Wish Foundation is.

"They have all the emergency stuff planned," she said. "It removes the anxiety that makes this sort of thing seem impossible. In our situation, I had to quit my job to care for Jillian fulltime. We had to pull her from school to home-school and we don't have much income now that we live on one income with a chronically ill child. To do this without worrying about how much it will cost is a big thing."

Crockett beamed when sharing what a trooper Jillian is, often offering her allowance to try to help pay for things.

Kellie Wyatt, marketing and communications manager for Make-A-Wish's Mid-Atlantic chapter said this is why they do it.

"Wishes give children and their families alike a chance to look forward to something fun during the midst of medical treatments and trips to the doctor's office, providing them with a chance to be a kid again," Wyatt said. "Many of our wish kids have to grow up so quickly when they're forced into a world full of chemotherapy, radiation, dialysis and more. A wish can restore a part of their childhood that's been stolen from them as a result of their medical condition."

Since their inception in 1983, Wyatt said Make-A-Wish has granted over 8,800 wishes.

"We grant wishes for children [between the ages of 2 and a half to age 18] who are diagnosed with a life-threatening medical condition. Following a referral from either a medical professional, the child themselves, a parent, guardian, or another family member knowledgeable about the child's condition, we work with the child's physician to determine medical eligibility."

Wyatt said life-threatening medical conditions are defined as conditions that are progressive, degenerative or malignant, placing the child's life in jeopardy.

"We grant around 10 wishes in Carroll County each year," she said. "Wishes usually fall into one of five categories: I wish to go, I wish to have, I wish to meet, I wish to be and I wish to give. We like to say that each of the wishes we grant are as unique as the children that wish for them."

While Jillian continues to beam about her magical trip, her mom can't help but smile, because sometimes little girls' dreams do come true.

For more information or to refer a child visit http://midatlantic.wish.org

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