Ten-year-old Justin Gaudineer has a thing for sports. The slight kid with a polite nature does them all, in a very big way — football, soccer, hockey, lacrosse and his favorite, little league baseball. "We don't let anything hold Justin back," said mom Robyn Gaudineer, noting her son's newfound knack for snow skiing during a family trip to North Carolina.
So when she and her husband, Jon, told Justin they were all going to a college basketball game, it wasn't all that out of the ordinary.
They snagged great seats surrounded by members of Saint Leo University's baseball team who all seemed pretty friendly. As the game between the Saint Leo Lions and the visiting University of Tampa Spartans got under way, Justin was handed a bingo card for the games held for fans during timeouts. When the winner of the first game walked away with an X-box, Justin got to thinking it would be pretty cool to win.
Come time for the second game, Justin realized his card was filling up fast.
"I thought, 'Something's up,' " he said.
Beach balls came flying out of the stands. Someone dragged a blow-up palm tree to center court. The crowd chanted "Justin! Justin!" Cheerleaders held up signs spelling out his name and he was handed a gym bag filled with a hodgepodge of beach stuff — suntan lotion, sunglasses, a straw hat, a passel of colorful plastic leis and a map marking a route from Tampa to the Turks and Caicos Islands.
Turns out the game was fixed, a joyful ruse put on by Saint Leo's Student Athlete Advisory Committee and the Make-A-Wish Foundation to announce a dream come true for the 10-year-old kid who has spent more than six years being treated for neuroblastoma.
Justin was 3 when he was diagnosed with the rare childhood cancer that develops from nerve tissue. While he was initially treated at St. Joseph's Hospital in Tampa, more recent treatment has involved monthly treks to Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City.
The Gaudineers knew about Make-A-Wish, a charity that grants wishes for children with life-threatening illnesses. But putting in an application wasn't a priority while tending to Justin's illness and raising two older sons, Joshua, now 20, and Jordan, 16. Last March, things were finally going well enough to consider it. Justin, a student at McKitrick Elementary School in Lutz, was getting straight A's. And he was feeling well enough to participate in all those sports. A couple of wish givers came to the house to interview Justin and ask what his three wishes might be.
Would he like to meet someone famous?
Attend a special event?
The World Series — particularly if the Yankees or Rays were in it.
Travel somewhere special?
Turks and Caicos — a place his brother Jordan had marveled about after going with relatives a few years back.
"He told me there was free ice cream, that the water is really clear and it's a great place for fishing," Justin said. "I like ice cream, I like to fish and I want to go to a place where the water is so clear you can see to the bottom."
In June, Justin will fly to Turks and Caicos along with his parents and Jordan courtesy of Make-A-Wish and student athletes at Saint Leo and at NCAA Division II schools throughout the country.
In 2003, Division II schools partnered with Make-A-Wish as a way to connect athletes to an altruistic cause. During 2012-13, schools raised more than $517,000 for the foundation. Saint Leo was one of five schools rewarded with the opportunity to host a Make-A-Wish surprise reveal after raising $9,000 through various campus initiatives.
"It's a little bit here and a little bit there and it adds up to sizeable amount," said Fran Reidy, Saint Leo athletics director.
"The surprise of the reveal was very neat," Reidy said. "Just to see this 10-year-old kid who had been battling cancer for all those years was inspiring. And we know about Make-A-Wish, but to see (what it does) firsthand was really, really powerful for our students. I think it will only help to raise even more money."
No doubt it will, said Heather Petronis, 21, president of Saint Leo's Student Athletes Advisory Committee. It was her duty to make sure Justin got the right bingo card at the game.
"There was huge support at that game," Petronis said. "It was just awesome. I was so choked up I couldn't even cry. I've put in a lot of time into this and helped fundraise for Make-A-Wish, but to actually see it happen — to meet Justin and his family — was really touching. I'm just grateful to be a part of it. It's something I'll remember for the rest of my life."
As will the Gaudineer family.
"That university was amazing," Robyn Gaudineer said, recalling how her son's eyes welled up when he was told that his wish had been granted. "They knew his story. They were chanting his name. They wanted to take pictures with him."
And, as it turns out, Saint Leo walked away with a win, 57-51.
"They told me, 'You're good luck — you helped us win,'" Justin said.
A couple days later, Justin went back to Saint Leo, accepting an invitation to join the baseball team during batting practice.
"The field is great. It has this soft clay and the grass is amazing," Justin said, adding that he had a great time swinging the bat and tossing the ball with the players.
"It was another wish within that wish," Robyn Gaudineer said. "They really went above and beyond to make it special."
Michele Miller can be reached at [email protected]