Sometimes it takes 500 vehicles to help a child’s dream come true

A young boy and a middle-aged man smile into the camera.  Both give a thumbs-up.
Nathan Payne, left, has a rare genetic disorder called Bardet-Biedl syndrome which causes gradual vision loss. Leon House, right, is a co-founder of Wheels for Wishes and aims to raise funds to pay for a buddy dog ​​for Nathan. (Henrike Wilhelm/CBC)

About 500 vehicles — cars, motorcycles, and trucks — filled a parking lot in St. John’s, all to help a young boy get a dog.

Nathan Payne, a 7-year-old from Corner Brook, was born with Bardet-Biedl syndrome, a rare genetic disorder which causes gradual vision loss.

He needs a buddy dog, which helps children who are partly blind gain independence, and makes for an easier transition to a guide dog later in life.

The cost, though, is about $50,000, so Wheels for Wishes held a car show Saturday.

“It’s an incredible feeling when, you know, the automotive community comes out and supports your cause,” said Leon House, co-organizer of the event. “We see beautiful cars, you know, new cars, old cars, race cars. It’s just amazing.”

Wheels for Wishes started in 2019 as a local group of automotive lovers, and for the past three years they’ve organized a yearly car-centred event in partnership with the local chapter of the Canadian National Institute for the Blind, to raise money to match buddy dogs with children with sight loss.

“It’s really the beginning of their training stages,” said House. “They have to, you know, take care of the dog, take the dog for a walk. It’s a really good thing.”

A man looks into the camera.
Duane Morgan is the vice-president of Atlantic Canada of the Canadian National Institute for the Blind. Morgan says the partnership with Wheels for Wishes is benefitting children with vision loss across the province. (Henrike Wilhelm/CBC)

Duane Morgan, vice-president Atlantic Canada of the CNIB, said the support of Wheels for Wishes is invaluable.

“The money raised by Wheels for Wishes goes a long way,” said Morgan. “The people of this province are really starting to feel the benefits of the work that Wheels for Wishes and other donors are doing.”

Raising the dog, matching it with a child, training and follow-up visits — all that comes at a cost.

So far, Wheels for Wishes has managed to raise the needed $50,000 every year, said House. The extra cost of food and vet bills for the dog are paid by the CNIB for the duration of the match.

Both Morgan and House are grateful for the support from the community — whether it be car owners coming to the show, donors, sponsors or volunteers.

This year, PAL and The Capital Hotel also helped, by making sure Nathan and his family could come from the island’s west coast and see the event — free of charge.

Apart from live music, food vendors, raffles and prize draws, the event held another surprise for Nathan who is a big Spiderman fan.

The superhero made an appearance on top of one of the buildings framing the parking lot, and even came down to chat with Nathan and have a look at the cars.

Parked cars are on the left and the right of the image.  On the section in between, people are walking, looking at the cars.
The 2022 Wheels for Wishes car show exhibited about 500 cars over the course of the day. The event included raffles, food vendors and live music. (Henrike Wilhelm/CBC)

For House, he hopes to continue growing the event in the coming years.

“Our end goal is to have people come from away to come to our show,” he said.

House already looks forward to the next Wheels for Wishes show in 2023, when the group will raise money to make another child’s wish of getting a buddy dog ​​come true.

“It’s pretty important to us. It’s near and dear to our hearts,” said House.

“If you get the opportunity to see one of these children with their dogs with the vest on, it’s pretty amazing. It’s a great thing.”

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