Originally published in the Manchester Journal Dec. 29, 2017.
MANCHESTER — When eleven year old Sammy Johnson stepped into The Perfect Wife Restaurant on Friday morning, he could hardly believe his eyes.
Standing before him, alongside his family and friends, were dozens of his favorite Star Wars characters. Heroes like Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, and Princess Leia had gathered to present the young padawan with a surprise celebration.
Johnson suffers from an aggressive brain tumor, and on Tuesday he will travel to the Boston Children’s Hospital for surgery. The celebration, facilitated by Make-a-Wish Vermont, was meant to remind Johnson that the force will be with him, always.
The organization also provided Johnson something to look forward to while he’s in the hospital: his wish to travel to LegoLand in Florida has been granted, and while he’s there Johnson will also reconnect with his friends from a galaxy far, far away.
“We’re reminding him that a lot of people are rooting for him, and trying to awaken his imagination while he’s in the hospital so that he has something else to think about,” said Jamie Hathaway, President and CEO of Make-a-Wish Vermont. “That’s what Make-a-Wish is really all about; providing some light in a really dark time.”
Volunteers with the global costuming organization The 501st Legion traveled from across the Northeast to surprise Johnson, though one had a rather large impact: Johnson’s favorite character, Chewbacca, hardly left his side throughout the celebration.
“This has been way beyond what we thought it was going to be,” said Sammy’s father Sam Johnson, of the local Sam’s Woodfired Pizza Co. “He doesn’t want to go back to the hospital, but this will help get him through.”
Multiple members of the Manchester community also attended the celebration, and among them were his Principals at Manchester Elementary and Middle School, Martin and Irene Nadler.
“It’s great to just be part of this celebration; I wish him the best,” said Martin Nadler. “We hope that things go well.”
Local celebrities also turned out to support Johnson, including Dos Equis’ former “most interesting man in the world” Jonathan Goldsmith, a Manchester resident and spokesman for Make-a-Wish Vermont.
“I just applaud all of the effort that’s gone into this; this is going to make this little kid very happy,” said Goldsmith. “It’s a great charity, and Amy Chamberlain [The Perfect Wife’s owner and chef] has become a friend. I think it’s wonderful how she gives back every chance she can.”
“It was more amazing than I had ever imagined, to see this appear is crazy,” Chamberlain said. “Just seeing all of the kids happy faces, and how thrilled the parents are; the fact that it’s all donated is really amazing. I would encourage anyone to donate money [to Make-a-Wish], because this is so special.”
The surprise is one of more than 800 wishes granted by the organization since its inception approximately 25 years ago. According to Hathaway, it’s the community effort behind each wish that makes such events so special.
“Human compassion is what pulls this all together,” Hathaway said. “What I love about Make-a-Wish is that it reveals the best in people. When we call and say that we’re granting a wish for a young boy in the neighborhood, everybody just comes right out.”
“Sammy’s got a great attitude,” said Paul Caroccio of TPW Real Estate, which has supported Make-a-Wish Vermont over the last decade. “I think it’s a really cool thing to help give kids like him a positive outlook, and get the community involved at the same time.”
After greeting ewoks, tusken raiders, and mandalorians, Johnson enjoyed pizza from his father’s restaurant followed by a cake in the shape of the iconic millenium falcon. Later, Han Solo and Princess Leia challenged Johnson and Chewbacca to a rousing game of foosball, where he learned an important lesson: it’s always best to let the wookie win.
With words of support and encouragement from his favorite heroes, Johnson’s father says that the celebration is one his son will not soon forget.
“There have been so many well wishers in the Manchester community, and so many people sending us positive notes,” he said. “Make-a-Wish really gave Sammy something to look forward to past the operation; a reason to really get through it.”
“May the force be with you all,” added Sammy.
Reach Cherise Madigan at email@example.com, or by phone at 802-490-6471.