PARMA, MI – Autism. Down syndrome. Labored breathing from sleep apnea. Jacob Murray has already endured a lot in the first four years of his life.
His 2019 has been even rougher. At the beginning of the year, doctors informed the Toronto, Kansas 4-year-old’s parents that he had leukemia. This is common for children with down syndrome, says the American Cancer Society.
That didn’t make the ordeal any easier for his mother Jessica. She knew she needed to latch on to some sort of message for Jacob and the Murrays to keep fighting.
Jacob barely makes noises due to his autism, she observed. However, she noticed that he giggles and babbles when watching the vibrant fish in “Finding Nemo.” Echoing a message from the optimistic, blue and yellow protagonist Dory, Jessica found the mantra.
“Just keep swimming,” she said. “It helped us to remember to keep going, even during the hard days and nights, to not give up and just keep swimming through it.”
Jacob’s leukemia made him eligible for the Make-A-Wish Foundation. Jessica knew his wish had to be fish-themed.
A trip to Sea World or Disney’s Animal Kingdom? No, since Jacob gets overstimulated and frustrated in big crowds, she said.
One day, she saw him climbing on his brother’s fish tank, his face “entranced” on the pets. The answer became clear: Jacob needed a massive fish tank combined with a kennel for his service dog Zera, a German Shepherd.
Her request made its way to Make-A-Wish Missouri & Kansas representative Kira McGrotty. She contacted PDM Woodworking, a custom furniture builder in Parma, through its Etsy page in July for the project.
Out of more than 250 dog kennels created, owner Thomas Corser said, this would be “the most intricate” construction his company ever attempted. His team of four at his house would have to reinforce the wood dog kennel with enough metal to hold more than 1,200 pounds of water from the fish tank.
“It’s not your average kennel,” Corser said. “It has a fish tank that can hold 125 gallons on top of it. There are sliding barn doors in the front with black walnut slabs. It weighs over 500 pounds…It was a completely new design, and definitely a process.”
After six weeks of construction, Corser and his team loaded up a flatbed to deliver the kennel. When they arrived at the Murrays’ five-acre Kansas farm, Jacob “couldn’t stop smiling,” Corser said.
“When he first saw the kennel,” Jessica said, “he started flapping his hands. He was so excited. He was giggling. He just ran to it and ripped the paper off, and he just climbed right into it and made a face like ‘This. Is. Mine.’”
His parents immediately filled the tank with angel and sucker fish. The apple of Jacob’s eye, however, is a giant goldfish named Cleo. Not only is he happy, but the responsibility of pet ownership does wonders for his physical development, Jessica said.
“With Down syndrome, they have trouble with milestones and with motivation,” she said. “It took him a very, very long time to crawl, sit up, roll over, stand and walk. The tank and the kennel help him so much with his fine motor movements…he’s getting so much stimulation and therapy from just going in and out closing those doors and pinching the food (to feed the fish).”
He also sometimes sleeps with Zera in her kennel bed, Jessica said.
After the gift from PDM Woodworking, the Murrays discovered even better news this month. After six rounds of chemotherapy, Jacob’s leukemia is in remission.