Fifteen-year-old Sam, from Anchorage, has always loved penguins. He admires the way they waddle hundreds of miles for food and their ability to endure harsh winters at the bottom of the world.
Sam, too, has endured more than most. In 2012, after undergoing two open-heart surgeries due to his life-threatening heart condition, Sam found out that he qualified for a wish through Make-A-Wish® Alaska.
Sam thought long and hard about his wish. Eventually, said Sam, "It came to me. That place that I'd always dreamt of visiting, a place with penguins, blue whales and some other amazing creatures: Antarctica." Sam's wish was clear: to go to Antarctica to see penguins!
Before departing on his once-in-a-lifetime trip to the southernmost continent, Sam and his family attended a send-off party at the Alaska Zoo with Professor Jennifer Burns, a biologist specializing in Antarctic seals. Burns talked about all the animals they might see on their journey—seals, whales, penguins and birds—and shared her experiences as a researcher.
On January 1, Sam and his family of four began their adventure. Getting to Antarctica took multiple days and included flying to Buenos Aires, Argentina and another short flight before boarding the ship to Antarctica.
An unlikely story unfolded in Buenos Aires when Sam saw a girl wearing a Make-A-Wish backpack at the hotel. He approached the girl to find out that Alexandra was another wish kid coming on the Antarctica cruise too! What were the chances of two wish kids on the same small ship at the bottom of the world? Both Sam and his new friend were the first wish children to ever travel to Antarctica through Make-A-Wish, and they became fast friends.
Sam has endured so much due to his life-threatening heart condition, so this trip was time for him to focus on the things in his life that bring him joy: penguins, whales, time with family and visiting what he calls, "one of the Earth's last frontiers."
And the penguins did not disappoint. When Sam sat down on the ice, the curious creatures came close. Sam watched them at work building nests out of rocks and waddling around on the ice. Sam saw whales, too: Humpback, Minke and Orca.
The ice was impressive. "I thought the scenery would be like Alaska, but it was completely different and unique," said Sam. "Everything there is ice - giant tabular icebergs. It was cool being there, knowing you're in a place where very few people have gone."
As if Sam was not already enough of an adventurer at heart, he even dared to jump into the ocean! "It was pretty cold," he reported with a smile.
When asked about the best part of the trip, Sam didn't pause before answering, "Definitely penguins."
For Sam’s parents, the trip was the perfect combination of adventure and time together as a family. "We never get that time as a family," said his dad, John.
"I would never have thought of going to Antarctica,” said his mom, Sharon. “I didn't understand how beautiful and different it was, and the penguins were amazing!"
When asked about the impact of the wish that took him from one “Last Frontier” to another, Sam said: "It was pretty life-changing being there and seeing it all." About the overall family experience, his dad John said: "It was healing."
Special Thanks: Wish-granting volunteers Phillip Ball and Patrice Chandler, Dr. Jennifer Burns, UAA, Alaska Zoo, Taco Bell/Denali Foods, Hill Barrett Travel, Hurtigruten, Make-A-Wish America