Wish Granted: Ole Miss makes Clark's wish come true

By JUSTIN WHITMORE,
The crowd of nearly 60,000 roared as Darth Vader led stormtroopers out of the northwest tunnel onto Hollingsworth Field at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium. Standing alongside his family, 13-year-old Benjamin Clark, sporting an Ole Miss cap and vest, threw up his hands and cheered as the legendary Star Wars character approached with a signed football from Rebel coach Matt Luke.
On the video board, Luke, joined by Andrew Newby, assistant director of the University of Mississippi's Office of Veteran and Military Services, told Clark that he and his family were receiving an all-expenses-paid, five-day trip to Disney World, courtesy of the nonprofit Walkers for Warriors.
After hearing this, Clark – who is in remission after being diagnosed with B-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia in late 2015 – grinned, tossed his football into the air, caught it coolly and threw up a "Fins Up" sign to the thousands of cheering fans.
 
It was the culmination of a weekend's worth of events honoring the Yazoo City native, who was this fall's Ole Miss Wish Kid.
 
Benjamin's trip to Oxford – which featured leading the team through the Walk of Champions, touring athletics facilities and firing the ROTC cannon – was more than just a Rebel fan's perfect Saturday morning. On Friday, Benjamin was proclaimed the university's first "Kid President" and signed a proclamation ordering all future Ole Miss Wish Kids serve in the same role.
 
Benjamin said he was honored to be able to represent future children who are battling hardships.
 
"Being kid president was a little pressuring at first, but then it was super exciting," Benjamin said. "It makes me feel great, and I want other kids to come and have a good time like I did."
 
Ole Miss Wish is a philanthropic effort of the Ole Miss Student Veterans Association. The program works with military families to give children the Ole Miss experience.
 
Benjamin's father, U.S. Air Force Maj. Caleb Clark, is a chaplain with the Mississippi Air National Guard's 172nd Airlift Wing.
 
Benjamin smiled constantly throughout the whirlwind of activities, despite the occasional fatigue and other side effects from his ongoing battle with leukemia.
 
"He is a trooper," his mother, Teri Clark, said. "Ninety-five percent of the time, he is smiling and doesn't let it get him down. He's more concerned about other people and making sure everyone else is comfortable.
 
"He'll get down and talk to smaller kids, younger children. He gets down on their level and talks with them and encourages them. He'll say, 'Look at me; I can take it.'"
 
Benjamin's illness has forced him to deal with things most other teenagers do not have to think about. It's his ability to deal with these hardships that attracted Newby and the Student Veterans Association to Benjamin and made him an easy choice for Ole Miss Wish.
 
"The thing I want Benjamin to take away from this weekend is that he is such a powerful example of what it means to go through hard things well," Newby said. "His attitude is absolutely inspiring, because he doesn't let on that he's having a hard time.
 
"He is such a bright soul, and giving him this experience has been a joy for all of us." 
 
Benjamin met Jordan Ta'amu on Friday during his tour of athletics facilities and tossed a football with the Rebel quarterback during pre-game warmups. After leading the team through the Grove along the Walk of Champions, an experience he called "overwhelming," Benjamin greeted each player and coach as they came onto the field.
 
"(Coach Luke) told me I was going to have a fun day, and said I was the team's good luck charm," he said.
 
Benjamin's love of Ole Miss stems heavily from his love of watching Rebel football with his father, and he said getting to play a major role in the game-day experience Saturday was special.
 
Newby said Benjamin's interaction with Ta'amu, who Benjamin called "very kind," was a highlight of the weekend.
 
"Watching the two of them just enjoy the morning together is something I'll remember for a long time," Newby said. "Jordan and Benjamin just talked about life. There was no rush, there was no worry.
 
"It was beautiful, and it really made his experience that much greater because it showed him that he matters."
 
After firing the ROTC cannon when the Rebels took the field, Benjamin was given the shell casing, which he plans to put on his desk at home as a keepsake of his Ole Miss Wish experience.
 
A patient at Blair E. Batson Children's Hospital at the UM Medical Center, Benjamin is inspired by his situation to help others when he gets older.
 
"The past few years, the nurses in the hospital have taken care of me and made this trial a lot easier to bear," he said. "Because of that, I want to be a pediatric nurse to do all those things they've done for me."
 
Walkers for Warriors co-founder Nicholas Roylance joined the Clarks on the sidelines Saturday to celebrate their trip. Like Roylance, Benjamin is a big Star Wars fan, and the costumes and pageantry of the presentation fit the Walkers for Warriors style.
 
The nonprofit generates money by attending cosplay conventions for "The Walking Dead." Walkers for Warriors raised more than $7,500 to pay for flights, hotel, resort passes, food vouchers and everything else that goes along with a Disney World trip.
 
"I'm elated (to give Benjamin this opportunity)," Roylance said. "I just wanted to give the kid a hug and tell him to have a good time."
 
More than $1,200 in spending money was raised for Benjamin by the O.D. Smith Masonic Lodge No. 33, of Oxford, and Belk Ford.
 
"This opportunity with Ole Miss Wish and Veteran and Military Services at Ole Miss was the perfect chance to make a lasting impact in a young man's life," said Ray Dees, the lodge's junior warden. "This family has already experienced so much, and as a military family they already give of themselves, so the Masons wanted to give them a wonderful experience, and this was a great chance to do just that."
 
Caleb Clark said it was an honor for his family to experience all it did over the weekend, but he also was proud to see the way the university recognized current and former student veterans during Warrior Week.
 
"I think it's vitally important to emphasize that military and education aren't distinct from one another," Clark said. "I always like to see a strong connection between education and the military.
 
"It's important for people to see (service members) as living, breathing, thinking, problem-solvers. So many of our folks on staff at 172nd are Ole Miss alums."
 
In mid-April, Benjamin will mark a major milestone in his cancer treatment as he gathers with family and friends to celebrate the end of chemotherapy. Soon after, on April 28, he and his family plan to pack their bags for Orlando to visit Disney World.
 
"We decided we were going to Toy Story Land first," Benjamin said.
 
"We'll be done with chemo and then going on this trip," Teri Clark said. "It's going to be a whole big 'No Mo Chemo' party."
 
Teri Clark said she was thrilled to see her son, and the rest of her family, be treated so kindly and given gifts they will remember for a lifetime.
 
"Throughout Benjamin's whole cancer journey, people are like, 'I don't know how you do what you do,'" she said. "But you just do what you have to do. We're just dealing with the hand that we've been dealt. We don't do anything extraordinary.
 
"And it's really overwhelming and humbling to be given the blessing that Ole Miss gave us."