Brayden's force: Delco boy, 3, gets an escort for the ages

Young cancer victim Brayden Chandler with his Father Jason Chandler at the Philadelphia International Airport after returning home from Disney World in Orlando, FL on Tuesday, February 18, 2014. ( Yong Kim / Staff Photographer )
Young cancer victim Brayden Chandler with his Father Jason Chandler at the Philadelphia International Airport after returning home from Disney World in Orlando, FL on Tuesday, February 18, 2014. ( Yong Kim / Staff Photographer )
Posted: February 20, 2014

ONE OF 3-year-old Brayden Chandler's favorite songs is "Tomorrow" from "Annie," but his family doesn't know how many tomorrows he has left.

So with the help of more than 100 police officers and more than 200 civilians, Brayden's parents, friends and strangers made the most of his yesterday.

The Delaware County boy with a big heart, terminal kidney tumors and a crush on Ariel from "The Little Mermaid" got a president's welcome when he returned yesterday from a Make-A-Wish trip to Walt Disney World.

Officers from across the five-county Philadelphia region were lining the exit when Brayden and his parents got off the plane. Outside, more than 100 police cars were waiting to escort them to their front door in Springfield. At the house, more than 200 community residents were there to welcome them home.

"It's amazing," said Brayden's mother, Jackie Marinelli. "I couldn't believe it."

A little more than a year ago, Brayden was diagnosed with bilateral Wilms tumors, which means he has tumors on both kidneys. For 13 months, he fought. His tiny body underwent test after test, chemo treatment after chemo treatment.

Then, on Feb. 5, Brayden's doctors told his family that it was time to stop fighting. There was nothing more they could do.

"Getting news like that, you're just beside yourself," Marinelli said.

Brayden's paternal grandmother, Dolly Chandler, said she had just baby-sat Brayden a few days before his terminal diagnosis and he seemed fine.

"My heart hurts so bad," Chandler said. "He's only 3. It's not right. It's not fair."

Given the devastating news, the Make-A-Wish Foundation of Philadelphia and Susquehanna Valley moved up Brayden's wish to go to Disney World from April to last week. Molly Gatto, director of program services, said Brayden's wish was not unusual. About half of Make-A-Wish kids choose a Disney trip.

"Our whole mission is to provide strength, hope and joy to these children," Gatto said. "There's something to be said for what we provide. There's hope in this wonderful wish experience."

Brayden's family said the trip was incredible. His face lit up each time he met the Disney characters, but especially when he met his favorite, Buzz Lightyear. He told Tigger he stunk a little and he even got to ride the teacups. The family stayed at Give Kids the World, a 70-acre resort designed for ill or special-needs children.

Meanwhile, in Delaware County, police were plotting. Before the family had left for Florida, Brayden had visited PennDOT and the Folcroft Police Department. Chief Robert Ruskowski made him an honorary officer and presented him with a police badge and corporal stripes.

"Aside from the feeding tube and breathing tube, he was a little boy jumping up and down and all excited," Ruskowski said. "On a professional and personal level, it's something I will never forget."

It's unclear who came up with the idea to give Brayden a police escort from the airport to his home, mainly because all the officers involved are modest and refuse to take credit. However, the names of Folcroft Officer Dan White and state Fraternal Order of Police conductor James Harrity, who knows Brayden's father, were dropped more than once.

An email was sent to Delaware County police departments asking for participation in the escort, and when word got out, other departments asked to be a part of Brayden's day, too.

White said he'd expected 25 to 30 police cars. More than 150 showed up. They came from Tinicum and from Philadelphia, from Aston and from the state of Delaware, and from everywhere in between. They were officers, constables, transit cops and troopers.

They were Brayden's force.

"It put tears in my eyes during the escort," White said. "Every intersection we crossed was blocked by surrounding departments. Words cannot express."

Back in the Chandlers' Springfield neighborhood, people started lining the streets well before the family's 4:30 p.m. flight was scheduled to arrive.

Christopher DeWees, 11, one of Brayden's neighborhood buddies, said that seeing his friend sick makes him sad but he hoped that yesterday's crowd would make Brayden feel better.

"This is amazing. Most of these people don't even know Brayden!" Christopher said. "He's going to be really surprised because he likes loud and exciting things, and this is loud and exciting!"

When Brayden's limo arrived, the family took a few moments to sit in the car and take it all in while police officers lined both sides of the sidewalk. Officers unloaded the family's luggage as three little boys nearby talked quietly to each other.

"He must hurt so bad," one said.

"He has cancer," said another.

"It's good to see people care," said the third.

Brayden's dad, Jason Chandler, got out of the limo in a Superman T-shirt and shorts, cradling his crying son. He rushed him into the house as a TV news chopper gave the crowd a flyover.

When Chandler came back out a bit later, he still looked shocked.

"I'm not used to being escorted," he said.

Later, Brayden's mom, Marinelli, described her son as "spunky" and "a fighter."

"He will fight you to the core, his favorite word is 'No,' " she said. "Even in the hospital, he was fighting every doctor, telling them, 'No, I'm good.' "

She said Brayden loves musicals and dancing to songs like "Seize the Day" from "Newsies."

Yesterday, in embracing a little boy, an entire community seized the day.


On Twitter: @FarFarrAway

Online: ph.ly/crime

Blog: ph.ly/Delco

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