A wish come true

Tom Batters
Taylor Wettstein (center) and her sister, Abby, presented the winning trophy to Ryan Unzicker (left) on Aug. 7.

Taylor Wettstein was swimming in her pool one day in late July when her mother asked her what she wanted for her fourteenth birthday.

“I want to do something special for the children at St. Jude (Chidren’s Hospital),” she said. “That would be the best birthday gift ever.”

She got her wish.

Wettstein and her mother, Jodi O’Flaherty, teamed up with Ryan Unzicker, a family friend who races cars on the Summer Nationals circuit, to organize a stuffed animal collection drive for the children at St. Jude.

In just under three weeks, they collected more than 550 stuffed animals and about $500 dollars that they will donate to St. Jude at a later date (after the kids get settled into the new facility at OSF Saint Francis Medical Center).

First, Taylor and her mom set up donation boxes at Do It Up Hair Design and Logowear in Metamora. The The box at Logowear will remain until Sept. 1. All new stuffed animal donations are still being accepted.

Unzicker, and his main sponsors, RJR Transportation (owned by Unzicker’s father, Rodney) and Pro-Tire of Bloomington, took the idea and ran with it.

They advertised it prior to Unzicker’s Aug. 7 (Taylor’s birthday) race at the Fairbury American Legion Speedway.

More than 300 stuffed animals came in on that night alone. Even Unzicker’s rival race team donated a box of stuffed animals to the cause.

“It was amazing,” Wettstein said. “It was definitely a memorable birthday. I’ll never forget it.”

It was destined to be a special night.

Unzicker broke an axle midway through the race and his team wanted to call it quits, but he said, “I have a race to win for somebody tonight.”

With five laps left, he miraculously took the lead. He won the race by a half car length.

Wettstein and her 8-year-old sister, Abby, presented him with the trophy.

Wettstein’s cousin, Riley Herman, also raced that night. It was his first race since undergoing extensive eye surgery.

“That made it even more special,” O’Flaherty said. “He was so proud of Taylor.”

At the end of the night (about 1:30 in the morning), they loaded O’Flaherty’s Yukon and her mother’s minivan full of boxes of stuffed animals.

“I never knew people could be so caring,” Wettstein said. “Ryan and everybody else was so generous. I’m really grateful to all of them for making my birthday so special.”

Wettstein, a freshman at Metamora Township High School, got to ride in the pace car and she was the honorary trophy girl for the evening’s races.

Needless to say, she is now Unzicker’s No. 1 fan.

“Ryan’s dad said, ‘We’ve created a monster.’ I’m a really, really big fan of his now,” she said, smiling.

O’Flaherty said she is “extremely proud” of her daughter.

“When she first said what she wanted for her birthday, I was a little surprised. It’s not what you expect a teenage girl to ask for,” she said. “But, she is a good-hearted kid. She’s unselfish and she really cares about those kids.”

Wettstein said she would like to become a nurse and work with the kids in the future.

She said she is looking forward to presenting the stuffed animals to them soon.

“If you can do just one little thing to put a smile on their faces, then it’s worth it,” she said.