CHILLICOTHE — This Fourth of July the Chillicothe community was celebrating more than just America.
A blue “W” lit up the night sky to kick off the fireworks display at the Chillicothe Fourth of July celebration on Thursday at Three Sisters Park. The firework tribute was in commemoration of a prominent community member and who many refer to as a local celebrity, but you may know him as "Wonderful Wally."
The story of "Wonderful Wally" has gained buzz on social media, and many have fallen in love with 1-year-old Chillicothe boy and his family. Wally Bastian has a rare heart condition known as Barth Syndrome, which means he was born with an enlarged and weakened heart that results in recurrent infections due to small numbers of white blood cells and weakness in muscles used for movement.
In his one short year of life, Wally has endured numerous surgeries and hospital visits, but on Feb. 28, he was given a fighting chance at life. The Gift of Hope Organ and Tissue Donor Network found Wally a match, and he was able to receive a heart transplant.
Larry Lefferts and his wife, Vivian, the owners of Central States Fireworks Inc., are responsible for putting on the fireworks display along with a couple hundred other displays in the area throughout the year. The Lefferts lost their son, John, a few years back and decided to donate his eye socket bones and tissue through Gift of Hope, which ended up touching the lives of 37 people from across the country.
Wally’s story hit close to home for them, and they wanted to use their business to bring a little more joy to the holiday festivities. So, Larry took it to the Chillicothe Fourth of July Committee and the fireworks tribute idea took off from there.
Wally's mother, Kelsey Bastian, is humbled and grateful for all of the support the community has given Wally and their family. When she found out that they were also paying tribute to Wally’s strength with a fireworks show, she had nothing but joy.
“I cried. Honestly, I was in disbelief,” said Bastian. “Everyone has been so great, and this was just one more thing that really helps raise awareness about organ donation.”
A purple tent was propped up in the open field, and Suzie Sturm, lead ambassador for the Peoria Area Gift of Hope Ambassador Group, stood in the middle of the gravel road handing out goodies to the carloads that rolled by to snag the perfect spot to catch the fireworks.
“This is to honor Wally’s family and Wally’s fight, but it is also a thank you to the community,” said Strum. “It was really a team effort.”
Strum was there to spread awareness and education about Gift of Hope. As the recipient of an organ donation herself, she wasn’t able to put into words what it feels like to hear the news of an organ match. She described it as an incredible sadness knowing that another family has to deal with a loss, but a beautiful thing as many lives can be saved from just one donor.
Kelsey Bastian has been sharing Wally's progress with the community that has rallied behind the family and lifted their spirits throughout the entire process. She hopes that Wally’s story will inspire people to understand how important organ donation is and consider donating themselves so that they can be a part of giving the gift of hope and life.
Strum described it as a story of coming together.
“It was a way for the community to feel like they could do something and truly be a part of it,” Strum added.
From the dark times of wondering if Wally would ever receive a transplant and return to health, to receiving a new heart and being healthy enough to go out to see the light of the fireworks in his honor, hope is the one thing that has always remained.
Grace Barbic can be reached at email@example.com or (309) 686-3194. Follow her on Twitter @gracebarbic.