AUBURN — Sixteen-year-old Jesse Hahnel was more than a little shy Sunday afternoon at GameStop in Auburn.
The New Gloucester teen appeared downright shellshocked as he entered the Center Street store and was surrounded by friends, family, store staff, the media and a crowd of onlookers clapping.
“Ah, dude. I don’t know how to describe it. It’s a really big shocker to me,” Hahnel said as he stood in line to use the $400 gift card provided by GameStop through the Maine chapter of Make-A-Wish. “I don’t know what to think of it all. Thank you very, very much.”
Hahnel, an avid video game player, knew about the $400 gift card two Lewiston school employees presented him with at lunch. What he didn’t know about was the Alienware M18X gaming laptop system awaiting him at the store thanks to Make-A-Wish sponsors Kepware Technologies and Dell.
The Gray-New Gloucester High School junior has had a tough year.
Hahnel learned last spring he was battling a cancerous optic tumor. Doctors removed the optic nerve, leaving him blind in his right eye, and cut off blood supply to the tumor itself in hopes of starving it. His mother, Donna Hahnel, said the move worked and that subsequent exams show the tumor shrinking.
Local wish-granters Cindy Gish and Jennifer Laroche-Albert surprised Hahnel with the help of his family and friends Sunday afternoon with a limo ride and lunch at DaVinci’s in Lewiston, followed by a trip to GameStop.
Dave Morris, district manger for GameStop, was on hand for Sunday’s festivities and said the international gaming store is a huge supporter for Make-A-Wish. He said the company has been involved in at least seven wishes in Maine alone over the last few years, but Hahnel’s wish was the first for the Auburn store.
“They’re always fun. It’s exciting. It’s like a kid in a candy store going around grabbing things,” Morris said. “If you had to pick a charity to be involved with, this is definitely the one.”
“This is the first one for us that we get to be a part of,” Laroche-Albert said. “Usually it’s a trip or something like that, so we don’t get to see it through.”
Laroche-Albert and Gish have been local wish granters for the national organization for the past five years. Both women agreed there is something very special about being part of such a special day.
“It’s so nice to see families go through such a positive experience after going through so many hardships,” Gish said, watching as Hahnel’s parents hugged and his close-knit group of friends surrounded him to check out his gaming purchases.
Make-A-Wish grants the wishes of children with life-threatening medical conditions. The Maine Chapter of Make-A-Wish opened in 1992. As of last fall, it has granted more than 1,000 wishes, with the average cost of a wish being about $6,000. Laroche-Albert and Gish are among the foundations 200 volunteers statewide who help grant at least 75 wishes per year.
“It’s not a reward,” Hahnel’s father, Alan, said. “It’s a stress reliever for the brain tumor stress we’ve had to live with the last year. It’s a counterbalance to the stress we’ve had to deal with.”
Hahnel’s mother, Donna, agreed, adding that Sunday was the happiest she’d seen her son in a long time. Following his surgery in July, she said her son has battled an uphill battle to regain his strength, but kept his sense of humor through it all. One of Hahnel’s older sisters, Elizabeth, returned home from Virginia this summer to help her parents care for Jesse following his operation.
“We really had a bad spring and summer. He really struggled and this is just so good for his spirit,” Donna Hahnel said. “He just started getting back to normal a couple months ago, but I still watch him like a hawk. He’s just so good-natured.”