Sean Cooley can’t wait to watch a car get smashed on Friday. The six-year-old from Northglenn is a bouncing bundle of energy who’s rarely seen without a toy garbage truck—and if he’s not carrying a toy truck around, he’s talking about some aspect of trash collection and processing. His waste management truck is his favorite, and he can rattle off terms for different kinds of garbage trucks at will.
“Are we gonna use a forklift garbage truck for the garbage route, or a grabber truck?” he asked last week at the Make-A-Wish Colorado headquarters in Greenwood Village, when I met him, his big sister Emma, and his dad Justin.
“I don’t know,” his dad replied.
“If we’re going to a building and we’re picking up their trash, it has to be a forklift garbage truck,” Sean said excitedly.
This weekend, Sean will get an up-close look at how waste management works, thanks to Make-A-Wish Colorado, GFL Environmental (currently rebranding from Alpine Waste & Recycling), and EVRAZ Recycling. The wish—the 5,280th to be granted in Colorado (no affiliation with 5280)—is kicking off on Friday, June 21 with a tour of GFL’s Denver recycling facility, followed by lunch and a drive up to Commerce City to see a car get crushed at EVRAZ. On Saturday, Sean will ride shotgun in a garbage truck through Denver, making stops at Broncos Stadium and Denver Fire Station 6, among others.
“We’re going to put him in one of our front-load trucks,” says John Griffith, GFL’s regional vice president. “He’ll get a chance to…see how we use the truck and the joystick in the truck to dump the containers into the back and pack the garbage.”
At the Make-A-Wish office, Sean was bursting with excitement about the whole thing—chasing his sister around the room, spinning in circles with his face to the ceiling and yelling “Donuts!” as if he was a motorized vehicle burning rubber in a parking lot. Almost every time someone asked him if he was looking forward to his wish, he responded with some form of, “Yes—when’s it coming?”
His energy is so vibrant that it’s easy to forget why Sean is getting his wish come true. He suffers from an immunodeficiency called chronic granulomatous disease (CGD). His immune system is impaired, leaving him at an increased risk of bacterial and fungal infections, particularly in his lungs. As a baby, he kept getting sick and his parents kept bringing him to the hospital to be treated.
“They’d keep us in, usually just enough for insurance to kick us out, and then we’d be home for a few days,” his dad says. A few days later, the infection would return and back to the hospital they’d go. “Finally, about a year in, they decided they’re going to keep us in until they figured out what it was.”
Sean had pneumonia, and because CGD makes his lungs more prone to infection and impairs his body’s ability to heal, the sickness was life-threatening. His CGD diagnosis brought the relief that comes when mystery is replaced with knowledge, but then Sean had to play catchup with his recovery. The kid who can now sprint around a room while telling his big sister what to do (whether she listens or not) was hooked up to oxygen and picc lines for antibiotics, while his parents waited on their insurance to pick up the tab. “We had to buy our own mini-fridge just for his at-home medicines,” Justin says.
It took about a year before his symptoms calmed down and the oxygen and picc lines were removed. In the four years since, they’ve had a few scares, some that required hospitalization and involved other respiratory infections (though no pneumonia). His parents have learned how to read his white blood cell count. They give him anti-fungal and antibacterial medicine twice a day and injections three times a week. If he gets a little bug, they take him to the hospital.
At some point, Sean came across a waste management garbage truck at a therapy session and decided garbage trucks were basically the best thing ever. He has a collection of them at home that he drives around his room, moving fake trash. “With his condition, for him to love this profession…” Justin says with a smile, trailing off and shaking his head.
Last year, Justin was at a conference to learn more about Sean’s condition when he learned that his son was eligible for Make-A-Wish’s services. He applied, and before long, Sean was invited to come and meet the Make-A-Wish staff.
Whenever a kid comes into Make-A-Wish, the staff guides them through the colorful star-studded halls where past wish recipients have signed their names to the Wish Room, which looks like something out of a fairy tale. A fake tree stands in the center, with a circular table built around it. A throne sits at the edge of one side of the room, and the whole space is decked with more colors than you can count.
Here, the wish granters get to know the kids, asking them about their favorite colors and foods and games and what they like to do for fun. Sometimes, a theme emerges early on: A little girl is obsessed with Minnie Mouse and wants to go to Disneyland. Other times, the wish requires more imagination.
“[Sean] actually was one of those kids that answered every question with ‘garbage trucks,’” says Francesca Vecchiarelli, wish coordinator at Make-A-Wish.
It wasn’t hard to get the waste companies on board.
“I’ve been in this business for 20 years, and when you think about Make-A-Wish destinations, trash companies don’t normally come to mind,” Griffith says. “For us, it’s just a thrill to have a small part in this day for Sean.”
The major obstacle was getting medical approval (immunodeficiency and trash don’t mix). But by planning the right precautions—bags of fake trash, a mask for Sean, keeping him in an enclosed space during the car smash—Make-A-Wish got his doctor’s approval.
Sean is looking forward to riding in the garbage truck and seeing how the recycling center works from the inside. But he’s most excited about seeing a car get smashed. Last week, he grabbed some crumbled up paper and moved it in and out of the back of his toy garbage truck.
“This is a car and I’m gonna smash it!” he said, pounding the paper between his hands.