He's going to Disney World ...
By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on October 23, 2009 1:46 PM
Kaden Odem's father, Daniel, helps him cut cake at a send-off party held for the boy at Strickland Insurance. Kaden has been battling a life-threatening blood disorder and the Make-A-Wish Foundation is sending him to Disney World.
His eyes wide open, Kaden Odem brought a fork to his mouth -- watching as cake and red icing hit his lips and tongue.
Were he older, he might understand why he got his very own cake on a day other than his birthday -- why a group of people gathered around him to watch every move of his hand while he ate.
He might know why his 8-year-old sister, Kielah, is so protective of him -- why having to leave her side to receive chemotherapy is atypical for most children his age.
But the 3-year-old maintained his innocence Thursday as his parents extended handshakes and open arms to people they had never met.
And that is why the employees at Strickland Insurance Group have been raising money for Kaden for the last month.
He could be any child, from any family -- even their own.
So their eyes stayed focused on him as he ran to the microwave to watch a bag of popcorn jump as it filled.
Some smiled when he turned shy and hid his face in his mother's leg.
He looked like any other 3-year-old -- certainly not like one who has been fighting a cancer-like disease since before his first birthday.
Employees at Strickland were hosting Kaden and his family for a send-off party -- for one last look at pictures of Mickey Mouse before the boy's Make-A-Wish trip to Disney World next week.
They were, after all, the ones who made the trip possible, raising roughly $5,000 to cover travel costs associated with sending two adults and two children to the resort.
"This is a pretty incredible feeling. It shows you the best in people," said Kaden's father, Daniel. "It's huge to know that there are people to lean on."
There was a time when Kaden was just like other children his age.
When he was born, his health was never in question.
But then he "started getting fussy" at 6 months old.
And a few months later, a knot on his head drew concern from both of his parents.
"The doctors thought it was a cyst and had it removed," Kaden's mother, Rachelle, said. "He actually had a big tumor sticking out of his head."
Shortly after a biopsy revealed that fact, the 10-month-old was diagnosed with Langerhans Cell Histiocytosis, a life-threatening blood disorder that acts -- and is treated -- like cancer.
"Initially it was a shock. You're not sure what to think," Daniel said. "There were lots of times when I would have to pull the car over to just cry."
And since that time, Kaden's small body has been operated on multiple times; chemotherapy and body scans have become a part of his routine.
"This is our normal," Rachelle said.
"But obviously, he doesn't know any different," her husband added, watching Kaden look up at Kielah with a smile as she hugged him from behind.
The Odems moved to Wayne County five years ago so Daniel could fulfill his duties as a member of the 4th Fighter Wing, but have stayed because of Seymour Johnson Air Force Base's proximity to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill's Children's Hospital.
"We look at it as, 'God put us here,'" Rachelle said. "The hospital at UNC is state of the art."
Their first appointment there showed the Alaska natives that top-notch medical care could be found in their current home state.
But they had no idea that back in Wayne County, just beyond the Seymour Johnson gates, a group of strangers was waiting with a love and support system akin to family.
So during that Thursday party, Rachelle and her husband did their best to thank those one-time strangers in whatever way they could.
And they made sure to keep the focus on their son and daughter, just as they will next week at Disney World.
They have, after all, been the real heroes throughout this ordeal, the Odems said.
"I mean Kielah knows what it's like to die. She knows he might die. Most 8-year-olds don't have to worry about things like that," Rachelle said. "And he is getting old enough to where he is starting to understand. So (today and on the trip) it's all about them. (Daniel and I) don't feel worthy of it. I mean, there are so many kids out there sicker than Kaden. But they deserve it."
Just as one day, they will deserve to know how a small town wrapped its arms around a little boy who loves helicopters and cartoons.
"There are no words," Rachelle said. "There really aren't."
Bobby Strickland spent much of the party holding his youngest grandson in his arms.
Every so often, he would look over at Kaden -- then down at the infant he was embracing.
"The employees have really put a lot of effort behind this," he said. "It tugs at your heart. It sure does."