HERNANDO - Twelve-year-old Austin Simpson had a whale of a time at Oak Grove Central Elementary School Friday - in fact students raised more than $5,000 to make his wish come true.

The Ashland, Miss. resident, who suffers from multiple sclerosis, told Make-A-Wish officials that he wanted to "go to Hawaii and see whales."

Amid the cheering of nearly 600 students, faculty and staff, Austin's wish was granted during a school assembly in his honor billed as "A Day of Celebration."

Austin was asked to come to the school under the premise of being a celebrity judge. Austin, along with two other judges, watched as teachers and faculty donned tropical outfits and gyrated to hip-hop music.

Assistant Principal Dan Ray introduced the judges, and when he came to Austin, informed the pre-teen that he and his mom, dad and brother were leaving for Hawaii Sunday for an all-expenses-paid trip.

While Austin was speechless after that announcement, his father walked up to the microphone and thanked the students and faculty at Oak Grove for their generosity.

"It's a bittersweet moment for us," Patrick Simpson told the crowd. "It was hard to keep this from our family and friends."

Patrick said he and Austin were watching the Discovery Channel on television one night and the youngster spied sharks and volcanoes.

Patrick asked his son if he would ever like to see those things in person.

He said Austin smiled and eagerly nodded his head.

Austin's grandmother, Jo Nell Rutledge, said her grandson is managing quite well despite having the neurological disorder.

Shortly after being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, Austin began treatment LeBonheur Children's Medical Center in Memphis.

He and his parents travel twice a year to Cincinnati to get additional treatment.

Rutledge said before his official diagnosis, she and other family members noticed that Austin couldn't walk or run as well as other children his age.

"He was playing baseball but he couldn't run," Rutledge said. "He would have to hold onto the wall to even make it up the steps. I know that some children with MS are in a wheelchair, but so far, it hasn't come to that."

Rutledge said she knows that stem cell research is controversial, and is a subject that, philosophically, she struggles with from a personal standpoint.

However, Rutledge said she is hopeful that stem cell research might be able to one day help her grandson and others suffering from MS.

Liz Larkin, executive director with Make-A-Wish of the Mid-South, said her organization helps more than 275 wishes a year come true for children like Austin.

"Being able to see that smile and learn when that wish is granted is something almost magical," Larkin said. "These families have been through so much. Every day they prodded and poked and I think it (wish making) gives the ids something to look forward to."

Sonya Barham, a volunteer, said having healthy children makes her want to donate her time to helping others in need.

"They've (family) been dealing with so much," Barham said. "Just seeing the children and their faces when their wish comes true is worth it for me."

Robert Lee Long: rlong@desototimestribune.com or at 662-429-6397, Ext. 252

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