America’s Youngest Diplomats

“We had an amazing trip to the Winter Olympics in Sochi!” Liz Hughes gushed. “Ben wished big and the trip was everything we wanted and more!”

There’s more to this travel story — much more.

While the world scene played out its politics and intrigue, and more than one nation used the Winter Olympics to score ideological points, this is the story of one family’s trip of a lifetime.

A dozen or so years ago, Liz, a Mizzou grad who hails from the Land of Elvis, married local Mizzou alum Scott Hughes. After a splendid wedding reception at the Peabody Hotel, they headed west, spending a few years in successful careers in California. They kept their careers, but returned to Missouri to raise a family.

Their sons, 10-year-old Ben and 7-year-old Will, are typical all-American kids. They love to visit their grandparents on the outskirts of Columbia, when they aren’t playing baseball or basketball or participating in a hundred other activities that keep the family hopping, just like millions of other families.

One thing sets this family apart. At age 6, Ben was diagnosed with leukemia. Four years later, Ben has turned the tide against this disease, and through the entire ordeal, this brave kid was a constant study in strength and inspiration. Today, Ben is cancer-free and will be considered cured in 2015.

Dream Trip
Thanks to the Make A Wish Foundation, Ben took his family to the Winter Olympics in Sochi. Along the way, Ben and Will Hughes probably did more for world peace and understanding than they realize.

Their stories are pint-sized G-rated glimpses of Greek tragedy and comedy, a bit of the “thrill of victory and the agony of defeat,” delivered with some good luck and timing. Ride along with the Hughes family on this adventure.

After a long flight, the Hughes’ nine-day Russian experience began in style, at the Moscow Ritz Carlton with a view of Red Square. And while the Ritz hotel corporation is a strong supporter of Make A Wish, they had never hosted a Make A Wish family at the Moscow hotel.

The folks in Moscow rolled out the red carpet, so to speak. For two days, the Hughes family absorbed Muscovite hospitality and culture. They ate in traditional Russian style, and toured Red Square, the Kremlin and the Space Museum. Young Will quickly adapted to Ritz-style pampering.

“We had a wonderful time,” Scott says. Of course, Dad was quick to credit the family’s two most important travel aides. First was their interpreter, Maria.

“Thank God for Maria,” Scott says. Just as helpful was their travel guide, a lady named Ilja, a perfectionist with details, performing advance work such as making contact with Make A Wish hospitals, just in case. As it turned out, they would need medical care, but not as they had envisioned.

In Moscow, the Hughes family joined two other Make A Wish families from the United States, and along with the guides and interpreters, the families flew on a regional Russian airline to Sochi, which is 15 miles from the Olympic Village. They stayed in a Sochi hotel — their room was smaller than their Ritz digs, but comfortable. The entourage traveled to Olympic venues in three cars.

“The first event we saw was ice skating,” Scott says. “Vladimir Putin was in the audience,” he recalls, along with hundreds of other world leaders and dignitaries. At the time, Scott and Liz had no way of knowing that both their sons would experience a “brush with greatness.”

“We attended five Olympic events,” Liz says. “We were able to see the snowboarding halfpipe, speed skating, figure skating and two hockey games. Each day was incredible and we loved the energy, enthusiasm and international vibe. It was so fun to be around people from all over the world cheering their athletes on, waving their flags and having fun.”

High Five
During the snowboarding halfpipe event — Ben’s favorite — Ben met his hero. “He was very insistent on arriving early so he could get his spot to watch,” Liz recalls. “We traveled about two hours to get to the mountains and Ben found a spot right away with a great view of the halfpipe. Since we were there so early we had time to interact with people ahead of time.” Liz says. “We met an awesome couple from Houston who ended up hanging out with us all day, blocked others from getting in Ben’s space.”

At a critical moment, the Houston couple “took the most amazing pictures when I was so overwhelmed by what was happening.”

Most parents know from experience that when a 10-year-old kid declares he won’t budge from his spot, he may falter after a while. Not Ben. He stood in the same spot on a sheet of ice for 10 hours waiting for a glimpse of his hero. His family brought him food, and he took a total of one bathroom break.

Ben’s brush with his hero began when a reporter was just doing his job. Washington Post writer Mike Wise struck up a conversation with Ben, asking him the usual stuff: “Who do you know? Why are you here?” After hearing why Ben and the other Make A Wish kids were there, Wise was determined to figure out a way to get American Olympic snowboard icon Shaun White to say hello to Ben.

The reporter mentioned Ben to a snowboarding official, who passed the word to White.

“It happened so fast,” Scott says. When White took his turn on the halfpipe, he completed his run; at the end, as he was talking to the media, Shaun hopped the fence to high-five Ben and hug him.

“We were stunned,” Scott says, “and couldn’t get to our cameras fast enough. But thanks to our friends from Houston, we have pictures.”

“And then the press swarmed us,” Liz adds, “asking us questions: ‘Why did Shaun White come over?’ ‘How do you know him?’ ”

The whole thing was videotaped by NBC Sports, whose camera crew had set up right behind Ben. That led to a guest spot for Ben and family on the “Today” show (at 6 p.m. Sochi time). “It gave us the opportunity to highlight Make A Wish and cancer survivors,” Liz says. “We are so grateful …”

Ben became a mini celeb — featured in “NBC Nightly News” and other newscasts and print articles. “You know the 15 minutes of fame thing,” Liz says with a laugh.

“Read the story in the Washington Post by Mike Wise,” Liz urges. “It tells his perspective.”

On the family’s last night in Sochi, one of Shaun White’s Olympic snowboards showed up at Ben’s room, autographed.

So Ben had an amazing trip, and met his hero. But what about little brother Will?

Bandage Chic
Will’s great adventure began when he cut his finger at a hospitality event. The cut needed medical attention, first supplied by aides to the King and Queen of Norway, who left the royal couple to attend to the boy. When the Russian paramedic arrived — a burly, Bunyanesque type with a booming voice — he quickly befriended the wounded boy, providing expert care — and a lasting memory for Will.

On the plane trip back to Moscow, Will’s hand still was heavily bandaged, noticed by the planeload of international faces, with more than its share of paparazzi and glitterati. “You’re the kid who hurt his finger!” they all exclaimed.

Will beamed proudly. Now he knew he had his own story to tell his schoolmates.

Indeed, their school celebrated the boys’ return with an Olympic party.


Mom is still a bit overwhelmed “We are so grateful to this amazing network of support: the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, Friends of Kids with Cancer, Camp Rainbow and the staff at Mercy Hospital’s Cardinals Kids Cancer Center. That facility and the doctors and nurses believe in kids being kids …” She paused. “Friends and family were our lifeline. We’re forever grateful and will continue to pay it forward.”

Ben and Will’s Olympic adventure was a down payment, diplomacy from a child’s perspective: All world peace is local.

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Liz HughesMake A Wish Foundationshawn whitewinter olympics
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