When thousands of brightly colored plastic balls are weighing down on Ryan Cornett, a lifetime of medical turmoil is not.
On Sunday afternoon, Ryan dove into his very own personal ball pit, courtesy of the Make-A-Wish organization.
Ryan, who is 10, has DiGeorge Syndrome, a condition that stunted his development physically and intellectually. Diagnosed at just a few months old, Ryan has autism and a heart defect that has led to two open heart surgeries so far.
While medical innovations have provided a prognosis for a long, healthy life, there are still more surgeries in his future.
But when Ryan is frolicking in a ball pit, alongside his older sister Holly, he seems just an average kid.
“He’s got some overall health issues, but he’s a happy-go-lucky kid,” said Ryan’s father John Cornett.
The Matoaka Elementary School student first encountered a ball pit in an occupational therapy session. It was an instant hit.
“I think what he likes the most is the pressure,” John Cornett said, explaining the inner balance is off for many autistic children. The balls, he said, provide input and help to alleviate balance issues.
The Cornett family set out to get their son one of his own, but the price tag for a private pit was steep, and the process from dream to reality took a few years in the making.
Ryan’s mother, Joan Cornett, reached out to Make-A-Wish Greater Virginia. The local chapter of the international organization grants wishes to area children diagnosed with progressive, degenerative or malignant conditions that are life-threatening.
Make-A-Wish volunteers Drew and Joyce Kershaw set out to make Ryan’s dream one of the 165 wishes granted each year.
Drew Kershaw has seen tens of children’s faces light up when their wishes come true, but Ryan’s is unique in that its benefit is two-sided.
“This is therapeutic, and for children with essentially autism, this is a calming, beneficial thing,” Kershaw said.
Seeing Ryan on Sunday, Kershaw is amazed at how far the boy has come since their meeting at an initial interview two years ago.
Rather than waving goodbye in a send-off celebration – the norm for many Make-A-Wish children who request to go someplace, frequently to see the magic of Disney – the Kershaws got to participate first-hand in creating Ryan’s desire. They helped the Cornett family set up the ball pit in their garage Sunday and empty the many bags of balls into the foam frame.
Once it was filled to the brim with 9,000 rainbow plastic orbs, Ryan got to test the waters.
He jumped into the pit, buoyed by the balls and spirit of the occasion, and surfaced with a wide grin.
Leaping in is Ryan’s favorite part, and he said the day made him feel happy and special.
For John Cornett, seeing his son happy — playing with other children from the neighborhood who came to join the fun — made the experience a memorable one.