BENTON — When 11-year-old Keaton Fitzgerald stepped out of the Scott County Sheriff's Department police car Sunday at Benton City Park, he tried to play it off like it was no big deal, that this was an everyday occurrence for the sixth-grader.
That facade lasted about two minutes, until Keaton's family and friends broke into a round of applause at seeing him exit the black Charger.
Keaton is a wish recipient of Dream Factory, a volunteer-based, not-for-profit organization that grants the dreams of chronically and critically ill children ages 3 to 18 in the United States. Dream Factory is the second largest wish-granting organization in the U.S., with more than 30 chapters nationwide.
He is the first dream applicant of the Southeast Missouri chapter, which began in April.
Keaton and his family are going to Gatlinburg, Tenn., to stay in a cabin and experience some local entertainment.
"His dream is to go to Gatlinburg for a week - it's got games, an arcade - and then we have scheduled for them to go to a couple of museums and on gondola rides and possibly a hot-air balloon," said Liz Matthews, Southeast Dream Factory secretary.
"There's a hypnotist show that they're seeing, and the hypnotist has agreed to make Keaton part of the show and all this cool stuff," Matthews said. "And today his dream is to be a SWAT team member, an FBI agent, so the Scott County Sheriff's Department is picking him up, running him around, dressing him up and then we have some FBI agents coming and they're going to make him an honorary FBI agent for the day."
The park was the final destination for Keaton's dream send-off where family, volunteers and locals could gather to see Keaton arrive in the police car and all spend time together celebrating before the Fitzgeralds' departure today.
Keaton's mother, Lisa Fitzgerald, is excited for the family trip, explaining that the last six months have been very hard and that the family is ready to travel somewhere they've never been before.
Keaton was diagnosed with nephrotic syndrome, a kidney disease, when he was 22 months old, Lisa Fitzgerald said, and six months ago he had a scare with a blood clot in his brain.
"On Nov. 23 we took him to Cardinal Glennon (Children's Medical Center in St. Louis), and they discovered that he had this (cerebral venous sinus thrombosis), which is a blood clot from the front of his brain to the back and to his jugular vein and it took six months of injections, blood thinner medication, and he's still on quite a bit. But we went May 16 for an MRI and it's 95 percent gone," Lisa Fitzgerald said with a huge smile.
Keaton just finished the fifth grade, which was a feat for him, considering he was absent 110 days because of his disease. His mother attributed his success to Keaton's teacher at Kelly Middle School.
The sendoff celebration was a major surprise for Keaton. As far has he knew, he was attending a family barbecue Sunday, and headed for his dream today. Sunday evening, Dream Factory area coordinator Brittany Fitzgerald, who is also Keaton's aunt, was able to be with Keaton when the sheriff's department arrived.
"He watched as the cop car pulled up and he had this weird look on his face and I was like, 'Keaton I think that's your ride,' and he said, 'a cop car?' And he kind of whispered and I said 'yeah I think they're here to get you,' and he was just like, 'oh my gosh."
Brittany Fitzgerald said Keaton was very excited. The officer gave Keaton a tour of the car, all the equipment he uses, let him talk on the radio, and at the barbecue gave firsthand instructions about how to handcuff a criminal, which his cousin, Chris Arnold, filled the role of.
Approximately 50 people attended Keaton's send-off.