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A Special Wish garden railway project

How Special Wish Foundation and the Northern Ohio Garden Railway Society came together to build a railway for a child
Aileen Eliza Photography
Jack's parents, Michelle and Dennis, requested a Special Wish for their son, Jack.
For many, garden railways are a unique hobby, but for Jack, a garden railway was a “special wish.”

A Special Wish Foundation, North Central Ohio Chapter (“Special Wish”), is a non-profit charitable organization dedicated to granting the wishes of children under the age of twenty-one who are diagnosed with life-threatening disorders. The organization serves Lorain, Erie, Huron, and Medina counties in Ohio.

In March of 2017, Special Wish received a wish request from Michelle and Dennis, Jack’s parents. Michelle’s friend told her about Special Wish and encouraged her to submit a wish for Jack. “I told her I did not know what I should wish for, but then I remembered we had always thought about putting a garden railroad in the backyard but were not sure how to do it,” said Michelle. “That is when I decided a garden railroad should be Jack’s wish.”

Jack is diagnosed with cerebral palsy and intellectual disability. Michelle said that, for the most part, Jack enjoys staying inside and playing with his trains, and she hopes the garden railway will encourage him to spend time outdoors. “Perhaps the neighbor kids or other families will come to see his train,” she said. “Jack loves people and he loves visitors, and I think this will improve his quality of life.”   

Michelle recalled Jack’s love for trains started when he was six years old and began watching Thomas the Tank Engine on television. “To say he is passionate about trains is an understatement,” she said. “That’s all he thinks about or talks about. If you ask him what he wants for Christmas it’s always ‘trains.’ What he wants for his birthday – ‘trains.’”

When Special Wish received Jack’s wish, one of their volunteers, Gary, had an idea. Gary’s uncle is a garden railroad aficionado, and he recalled hearing of an organization dedicated to the hobby. His recollection led him to discover the Northern Ohio Garden Railway Society (NOGRS), a non-profit group comprised of families and friends passionate for garden railways.

Gary found the name of a NOGRS trustee, Ralph, on the society’s website, and reached out hoping for help. “He called me and said they wanted to help, but did not have the financial resources to donate a garden railroad,” said Gary. “I told him, ‘I don’t need your money. I need your expertise.’”

With that, NOGRS and Special Wish came together and went full speed ahead to make Jack’s wish a reality. A group of NOGRS members visited Jack’s home to survey the backyard and develop a trackplan for the railway. They brought note pads and creativity, and spent the afternoon talking with Michelle and Dennis about what the design should be and what Jack would love the most. They decided on two separate tracks with two sets of train cars, and a covered bridge instead of a tunnel so Jack would have a place to store his trains during Ohio’s winter months.  

In addition to volunteering their time and expertise, NOGRS reached out to friends across the United States to ask for help. In search of a starter train set for Jack, Ralph called Reindeer Pass, a vendor in Ankeny, Iowa. Their contact reached out to Charles Ro, owner of Charles Ro Supply Company in Malden, Massachusetts, commonly known as “America’s Largest Train Store.” When Ralph’s contact at Reindeer Pass returned his call, she asked if he was sitting down before telling him that Charles Ro agreed to donate approximately $1000 worth of train cars for Jack – two USA Trains N&W Starter Sets and a 10-amp power supply. One of the donated cars is orange, Jack’s favorite color.

Michael Niebaum of Michael’s Woodworking in Louisburg, Kansas donated lumber for the trestles and his talent to build some of the buildings for Jack’s railroad, including a fire station, train station, and a covered bridge. He drove the buildings to Barb and Ralph’s home in Ohio and Barb painted, waterproofed, and decorated them, with the help of NOGRS friends, Barb and Will. Jack’s train station is painted scarlet and grey, a tribute to his favorite football team, The Ohio State Buckeyes. Thanks to George Solovay of ITT Products in West Hills, California, Jack’s railroad is equipped with sound chips that play the Ohio State Buckeyes Fight Song when triggered by the remote.  

Dallee Electronics, located in Leola Pennsylvania, donated a timer and station stop for Jack’s garden railway. A former NOGRS member, George, generously donated 200 feet of Aristo-Craft and LGB brass track featuring 8’ and 10’ radius turns. NOGRS members Bob and Joyce donated a village, post office, and gazebo for Jack. Dale and Becky built and donated a special boxcar – it is blue and features Jack’s name and the logos for Special Wish, Reindeer Pass, USA Trains, NOGRS, and Garden Railways Magazine.

Special Wish purchased 130 Crest brass rail clamps, the conductive paste for the track joints, and four Piko re-railers for Jack’s garden railway. The Rock Pile, located in Avon, Ohio, donated limestone for the base; the track base is two tons of #411 limestone. Number 9 limestone was used for the ballasting and top dressing, and #8 limestone was placed under the trestles.

Mulberry Creek Herb Farm of Huron, Ohio donated vegetation, some of the limestone, and other landscaping for Jack’s garden railway. Surrounding the railway and structures is white moss thyme (Thymus praecox subsp. arcticus 'Albus'), Jean’s Dilly Alberta spruce (Picea glauca 'Jean's Dilly'), dwarf golden cypress (Chamaecyparis lawsoniana 'Ellwood's Gold Pillar'), and Trost’s Dwarf birch (Betula pendula 'Trost’s Dwarf')..

In addition to the various organizations and individuals generous enough to donate their products and talent, about 40 people donated their time and labor to help build Jack’s garden railway. Special Wish and NOGRS agreed on May 20, 2017 as the date to build. They anticipated the project would require about two days, and Michelle and Dennis made weekend arrangements for Jack so his garden railway would be a surprise when he came home on Sunday. As the day approached, all became nervous when the forecast called for rain. But on Saturday morning, the sky was clear – and Jack’s backyard was crowded.

Cars lined the street surrounding Jack’s driveway. In the ground next to Jack’s mailbox was a giant red flag that read “NOGRS,” depicting an image of a black train car. The back window of a car parked at the edge of Jack’s driveway was covered with a white and red poster that read “A Special Wish Foundation” in large, proud text.

About eight hours after the project began, the land and vegetation was stripped and a trench was built to block weeds and other unwanted vegetation, the limestone that started as a pile in the driveway composed the railway’s base, the tracks and structures were in place, and the electrical component was complete. Jack’s garden railway was fully operational at 5:00 p.m., five minutes before the rain came. The crowd packed up and went home for the evening, set to reconvene Sunday at noon for the big reveal.  

The rain persisted as of Sunday morning, so Special Wish worked with Michelle and Dennis to buy some time before Jack came home. Around 12:30, the rain subsided, and around 12:45 Jack arrived. The sky remained cloudy, but the afternoon was filled with sunshine.

The members of Special Wish and NOGRS gathered in the backyard behind Jack’s garden railroad, patiently waiting for him to come through the back door of the garage with his family by his side. “The boy is here,” said Ralph, as he fist-bumped Gary with a Diet Coke in his hand and a smile on his face.

A few minutes later, the crowd saw Jack come through the door with a bright red “Special Wish Foundation” T-shirt. At first distracted by all the people, Jack immediately made his way into the crowd to say hello. Seconds later, he noticed his garden railway and hurried toward it, collapsing to his knees in the wet grass as his two trains ran at the same time. Jack clapped as he watched his train take laps, his smile big enough to light a room. He made his way back to the crowd, shaking everyone’s hand and thanking each person individually. “The train is running,” he said with disbelief as he shook hands with John, a member of NOGRS.

Michelle was humbled by what Special Wish and NOGRS did for Jack. She said that when she submitted Jack’s wish, her and Dennis were merely hoping Special Wish would lay the track and set up the electrical, but was shocked by the generosity of NOGRS and all the businesses and individuals who went above and beyond to make Jack’s wish a reality. “One of my favorite sayings is, ‘this was not the journey we had planned on taking, but we sure do like our tour guide,’ because Jack, being who he is, has showed us the angels in the world, such as Special Wish,” said Michelle.

Special Wish granted more than one wish that day. A few days after the project was complete, Michelle joked in a text message to Gary, “be careful what you wish for.” She reported that, at 8:45 p.m. that evening, she could not convince Jack to come inside. He was in the backyard kneeling on a blanket as the sun set, watching his two trains run at the same time.

The members of Special Wish feel a great sense of accomplishment when they complete projects like Jack’s garden railway. “Now you can sleep,” Special Wish member, Shelley, joked to Gary at the end of Jack’s reveal. Referring to his smile, Gary replied, “I just won’t be able to wipe this off for a while.”

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