Connor O’Neill isn’t your average 11-year-old. Doctor’s appointments, check-ups, and various types of therapy are a regular part of his life due to a life threatening condition called 22q. Connor’s condition is caused by a missing 22nd chromosome. Health issues including heart, kidney, and stomach problems, along with others, are a result of his condition.
Connor has had ten open heart surgeries and after his first one, something called a complete heart block stopped his heart’s ability to produce a signal to beat, so Connor now has a pacemaker.
Connor is currently in a relatively stable condition. His last surgery was over a year ago and his last open heart surgery was over five years ago. Connor’s days consist of various appointments including doctor’s appointments, physical therapy, occupational therapy, social skills classes, blood draws, and more. This is where Make-A-Wish comes in.
On Saturday, April 23, the University of New Haven and the Make-A-Wish Foundation granted the first part of Connor’s wish of taking a cruise to the Mediterranean. Before the O’Neill family left to embark on their cruise, Connor would be signing a one-day contract to play on the UNH football team.
Across the country, over $4 million has been raised for the Make-A-Wish Foundation with the average cost of granting a wish to be about $10,000. Last year, UNH led the Northeast-10 Conference in fundraising with a total of $5,400. Because UNH was the leader in their conference, the University was able to grant the wish of one child this year.
“You can make kids like me have their wishes come true. I’m so thankful,” Connor said.
According to Michael Dominick, Community and Media Relations Manager for Make-A-Wish Connecticut, the process of assigning a child to a fundraising organization is mainly based on geography, as well as what works best with the child’s personality. “We like to put them in a situation that makes them the most comfortable.” This is why Connor was chosen for UNH, his energy and love for people made him a perfect match.
The day started off when the O’Neill family was welcomed by students from various groups and organizations, staff, and faculty at the University of New Haven gymnasium. SAAC, Alpha Sigma Alpha, UNH Pride, Delta Phi Epsilon, Charge Up, and Legal Society were amongst the many groups involved. Connor energetically shook hands, high-fived, and hugged members of the UNH community, spreading his joy with everyone there.
Following the initial greeting was a press conference held by the athletic department where Connor signed his one-day contract to play as a Charger. He then found his locker where his very own Charger jersey, football pads, and cleats were waiting for him. After changing into his gear, he met with the remainder of the team to listen to Coach Pincince talk about the game plan. Connor then led the team onto the field, cheered on by the marching band, cheerleaders, and supporting fans.
After the team warm-up, the O’Neill family climbed aboard the S.S. Connor, a golf cart decorated as a cruise ship, and began a mock journey modeling the trip that was soon to come. Six different stations representing the six different cities on the cruise were set up around the outside of the field with various donated baskets for Connor and his family.
Sponsors, including Milford Photo, Dick’s Sporting Goods, AC Moore, Hull Art Supply, Sodexo, LaCuisine, Cappetta’s, Hummel’s, Adidas, Champion’s Choice, Tag Up, and Riddell, all contributed to making Connor’s day the best it could be.
Baskets were designed and donated with Connor’s interests and destinations in mind. An Italian, French, and Spanish cuisine basket were among the many donations, along with a snorkeling kit, art supply kit, and digital camera.
After the mock cruise, the UNH football game kicked off and ended with Connor scoring the winning touchdown. A tunnel of football players bid Connor farewell and escorted him to his last surprise of the day: a Cappetta’s food truck, run by co-owner Donato Cappetta, where Connor baked his own pizza from scratch.
According to Connor’s mom, Damara O’Neill, Connor loves watching Food Network, cooking, and eating. One of the reasons Connor wanted to go to the Mediterranean was to eat real Italian cuisine. In fact, during their short time in Rome before the ship departs, the O’Neill family plans to visit an olive oil estate and learn how to make their own pizza from scratch, something that Connor will now have experience with.
“I’m just speechless…I mean the kindness of every person today from when we pulled into the parking lot this morning is unbelievable. I mean, everybody here is just fantastic, you know, high-fiving him, talking to us, everyone seems like genuinely kind people who really care…and seeing him so happy makes me happy,” Damara O’Neill said.