DADE CITY — Gary Patterson was still breaking in his state-of-the-art wheelchair — complete with power controls, a high-tech cushioned seat and stickers of his idol, wrestling superstar John Cena — when Cena's theme song began blaring over the cafeteria speakers.
Gary's classmates at Centennial Elementary School started screaming. "John Cena! John Cena!" wailed one child, as Cena himself crept across the room, his index finger pressed to his lips, to surprise Gary.
Gary's face lit up with astonishment and joy. The 9-year-old with cerebral palsy had already received a $32,000 custom power wheelchair on Tuesday from a generous foundation. How could the day get any better?
"He is so awesome!" Gary said as he gushed over Cena's surprise visit.
The donation of the wheelchair and Cena's visit were coordinated by Jillian Kornick, Gary's teacher and ESE instructor at Centennial Elementary. Through the three years that Kornick has taught Gary, she has come to hear and share all of the Trilby boy's dreams for the future.
"He says he wants to walk across the stage at his high school graduation ceremony," she said. "Here we want to do all we can to help him make that happen."
But the fourth-grader sorely needed a new wheelchair.
"His wheelchair was a manually operated model, 4 years old with a worn seat and patched with duct tape in some places," Kornick said. "It was time for a new one."
Medicaid denied his claim for a new chair, though. So the Shriner's Hospital, which provides treatments for Gary, steered Kornick to the Darrell Gwynn Foundation, which supports people dealing with paralysis. The nonprofit hosts a wheelchair donation program that provides customized power wheelchairs to those facing medical and financial hardships.
"This chair is built in a way that will help him improve his circulation, and the $5,000 seat is cushioned to prevent bedsores," said Ryan Rogers, marketing and communications director for the foundation. Rogers, along with several other foundation officials and representatives of wheelchair retailer DMR, which provided Gary's new chair, were on hand for Tuesday's assembly. "He'll be more comfortable, and will be able to recline his head to watch TV or use the computer. Everything will be easier."
Using the power controls, Gary can tilt and incline the new chair much like a recliner. A special headpiece on top allows him to drive the chair forward and maneuver its motion. He also can push a button that allows him to increase his speed — though Kornick and teacher Patsy Little both have asked that he not push this button at school. "Now I can drive myself," Gary said. "I can go where I want to go."
Kornick also made sure the chair came with a built-in model of a heavyweight title belt, and she arranged through mutual friends for Cena to appear.
"I'm always excited to appear at events like this, to be there for kids who face obstacles," said Cena, who posed for photos afterward.
Gary thanked Kornick for "the best chair ever," and also thanked his aunt and uncle Betty and Rick Conley, with whom he lives, and his mom, Sally Simmonds.
"He and I made a deal today that we weren't going to cry," Kornick said, blinking back tears as she offered a smile. "Somehow, though, I don't think I'll be able to keep my side of the bargain."