An Indiana boy and his family enjoyed a Yellowstone National Park dream vacation last month thanks to a charity in his home state and the generosity and hospitality of people in the park and a nearby gateway community.
“The trip and everybody involved just far exceeded everything that we expected. Everybody just bent over backwards to do great things for us,” said Nathan Bartlett, whose son, Christopher, was diagnosed in 2009 with acute lymphoblastic leukemia.
Christopher, 8, of Whitting, Ind. is doing well now after a tough course of chemotherapy, his father said, so the boy was able to make the most of a family vacation sponsored by the Northwest Indiana chapter of the National Association of Insurance and Financial Advisors.
For years, the association has sold $10 raffle tickets to pay for dream trips for seriously and terminally ill children, said Make A Dream program coordinator George Ross.
“We were glad to be able to do something for them,” Ross said. “The people at Yellowstone have been absolutely incredible, and were so good to the family.”
Bartlett said Ross was a bit surprised when he first met with Christopher, asking the boy if he wanted to go to Disneyland.
“He said, ‘Nah, I don’t want to do that. That’s for girls and there’s too much Disney stuff,’” Bartlett recalls his son telling Ross. “He said, ‘I want to go on an adventure and see the woods and mountains and animals.’”
Bartlett said he went online with Christopher and searched for national parks.
“Yellowstone came up at the top of the list, and as soon as Christopher clicked on a link, we saw buffalo and bears and wolves and he was sold,” Bartlett said. “We were going to Yellowstone.”
Yellowstone public affairs officer Dan Hottle learned through connections in Indiana, where he used to live, about Christopher’s trip, and shared the news with others in the park.
Hottle said he thought it was “pretty cool” that Christopher chose Yellowstone over Disneyland, or any other destination.
Word also reached Rick Hoeninghausen, vice president of sales and marketing for Xanterra Parks & Resorts, the main concessioner in Yellowstone.
Hoeninghausen made several phone calls to track down the Bartletts while they were staying at a guest ranch east of Yellowstone, near Cody, Wyo.
“We found out a little bit about Christopher, and learned that he likes the outdoors, he likes to fish, and so we were able to put together a fun itinerary for them,” Hoeninghausen said.
He worked with Park County Travel Council Marketing Director Claudia Wade to line up a full day of activities in Cody, including river rafting with Wyoming River Trips, a visit to the Buffalo Bill Historical Center and an evening at the Cody Nite Rodeo.
Though she didn’t have time after hearing from Hoeninghausen to work directly through the sponsoring Make A Dream program, Wade said local vendors were happy to do whatever they could for Christopher and his family, no questions asked.
“It felt like the right thing to do,” Wade said, adding that Christopher was “tickled” to go river rafting.
"It doesn’t surprise me when something like that happens,” Hoeninghausen said, “but it’s really cool when a community jumps in and just says, ‘We got it covered.’”
While staying at the Old Faithful Inn, Hoeninghausen arranged for Christopher and his family to join bellman Ed Nabors when he went to the top of the building to take down the flags for the evening. Though the rooftop area was once open to everyone, to preserve the aging wood structure now only small groups get to go up, typically for the lowering of the flags.
Xanterra gave Christopher the American flag that flew over the inn, as well as a commemorative flag from the hotel’s 100th anniversary celebration.
Christopher went fishing on Yellowstone Lake and “caught a bucket full of lake trout,” his father said. The family also went on a full-day tour of the park on one of Xanterra’s restored historic yellow “jammer” buses.
“That was amazing,” Bartlett said. “We were out from 8 in the morning till almost 7 at night. We saw pretty much everything we could possibly see in Yellowstone in one day. Tons of animals — buffalo, elk, bears.”
Even Christopher’s older sister, who had lobbied hard for the Disneyland trip, was enthralled by Yellowstone, he said.
Ross said Make A Dream trips are often as important for family members as for the sick children. Christopher was joined by his parents, uncle and nine-year-old sister.
“These families deal with the illnesses every day, so it means the world for them to get away from their troubles for a few days,” Ross said.
Christopher has responded well to treatment and is “pretty much back to being a normal boy,” his father said. He will continue to undergo blood tests for about a year to monitor his health, but he now feels and looks healthy and happy.
Though the trip to Yellowstone was the first one for everyone in the family, it probably won’t be the last, Bartlett said.
“I’m pretty sure we’ll be back out within the next couple of years,” he said.
Ruffin Prevost is founding editor of Yellowstone Gate, an independent, online news site offering community news and inside views about Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks and their gateway communities.