It's not every day that a fire engine shows up at school to give you a ride home from fourth grade.
Then, when you get home, you find tons of people hanging out in your basement.
Oh yeah, and your plain, gray concrete basement isn't plain anymore. There's a big, plush wraparound sofa and a new flat screen TV. The carpeting is soft, barefoot-walking soft. The walls are buttery yellow.
It's a wish come true for 10-year-old Evan Saldana, of O'Fallon.
But it's bittersweet.
The slim dark-haired fourth-grader endured a scary, exhausting year-long battle with cancer when he was 9.
Make-A-Wish Illinois made the project happen, with help from Mark Fulford of Fulford Construction Inc., the Home Builders Association of Greater Southwest Illinois and a ton of subcontractors and vendors. Many, including the Make-A-Wish folks, were on hand to see the unveiling.
Evan's dad, Dennis, was beside himself.
"Look at this, isn't this awesome?" he said. "Great job, folks, Evan is going to love it."
"We have been looking forward to this for a long time," said Todd Probst, of O'Fallon, a volunteer with Make-A-Wish. "I can't wait to see the look on his face when he sees it. He picked out paint, carpet, furniture, everything."
The look was wide-eyed, with a touch of wonder.
"I like it," Evan said softly.
Family and friends snapped photos.
"There's more to see. Want to see what's back here?" said Dennis, leading Evan to a corner full of the family's exercise equipment.
"Here's your sleeping bags in here," someone said, opening a cabinet behind the sofa.
"He likes the doorknobs," said Dad, of the levered handles.
Mark Fulford addressed Evan from in front of a new flat screen TV.
"Hopefully, you enjoy this space with your brother and sisters, with friends and family," he said. "I hope it meets what you were expecting."
Dennis choked up a bit when he thanked everyone.
"You guys have no idea how you are going to change the lives of our family," he said, facing the room full of workers, firefighters and a representative from the mayor who declared March 12 Evan Saldana Day.
Evan lounged on the sectional alongside his mom, Kathy, brother Jessie, 11; and sisters Isabella, 7, and Sophia, 6. He held the proclamation tight in his hand.
Getting the bad news
Evan likes jumping on the backyard trampoline, playing video games and riding bikes and scooters with friends.
The fourth-grader at Zion Lutheran first got sick in May 2011, and was hospitalized with pneumonia.
"He missed the last two weeks of school," said Kathy. "We always joked of all the kids, he was our healthiest."
But Evan didn't bounce back.
He complained of stomach aches, and migrating pain in his midsection. That September, he ran a low-grade fever. He lost weight.
When the pain escalated, the Saldanas raced him to Cardinal Glennon Hospital where doctors performed surgery two days later.
"The intestines were closing in on themselves," said Dennis, gesturing. "It was like pulling off a sock inside out."
Evan was diagnosed with anaplastic T-cell large lymphoma, a rare, aggressive cancer.
"You always hear it always happens to other people. The C word," said Dennis, a gymnastics instructor and movie stuntman/actor. "Then it happens to you. The blood kind of leaves your head. You want to pass out, but you want to stay upright."
He and Kathy sat recently at the kitchen table telling their story. Evan sprawled across a living-room easy chair. A remote dangled from his hand. Sunday morning at the Saldanas is laid-back, the way he likes it.
Evan stayed two weeks in the hospital. Dennis and Kathy tag-teamed trips there, never leaving his side. They tried to keep things normal at home.
"My sister came down from Chicago,' said Dennis. "The kids were sleeping in bed with her like they do with us. She was the mom."
They went to school, did homework and drew lots of pictures for Evan.
Friends and family rallied. The mothers club set up a care calender. Parents jumped in to clean house, mow the lawn, cook meals, drive the kids.
"Neighbors and parents from school, were indispensible," said Dennis. "It gave us a chance to focus where we needed to be."
Dennis and Kathy were at the hospital, hurting for Evan who endured tests and procedures, tubes and catheters, biopsies and spinal taps, blood transfusions and chemo.
"His world was, 'When can I eat? What can I eat? When can I go home?'" said Kathy.
"Before he was sick, he had hair down to his shoulders," said Dennis. "He identified with his hair, kind of like Samson."
Evan curled into a ball after being told he would lose his hair.
"But when he started losing it, he had fun with it," said his dad. "He had little stragglers til it grew back."
He was so weak he needed to be helped out of bed. At home last winter, recovery was slow. Tutors came an hour a day. Sometimes, It was a struggle.
"We wanted him to stay in touch with life and school," said Kathy, a dietitian. "I didn't realize the effects with all the drugs I'd say, 'Would you like to go to school?' He'd say, 'Mom, I can't feel my arms and legs.'"
Evan fell behind and felt out of touch.
"The turning point, honestly, was when the principal at Zion suggested to Evan and us he wanted to hold him back," said Kathy. "His motivation was to not repeat third grade."
Play dates with classmates helped him reconnect.
"This year, he's not only up with his peers, but he's on the honor roll. Now, he's got so much energy, he's kind of mean sometimes."
Evan is in remission.
His parents remain watchful and count their blessings.
"We are so grateful for how well he's doing," said Dennis. "We have hope and faith that he will continue to stay that way."
What to choose
Make-A-Wish folks visited the Saldanas in spring 2012,
The typical Make-A-Wish choice is a family trip, usually to DisneyWorld.
"We looked at cruises, people he could meet," said Dennis. "The actor who does voice for Mario games. We could go to Brooklyn and get to meet The Cake Boss, or take the SpongeBob cruise."
Or do something closer to home.
The Saldanas' unfinished basement had a bar area, computer area, a place to watch TV and a hat wall.
"Our weekly tradition is to have a family movie night," said Dennis. "Last night, we watched 'Hotel Transylvania.' I collect hats as my father before me did. You have to watch the movie with a hat on.
"One day, Evan came running upstairs. saying, 'I want a movie theater downstairs. I want floors and walls and a ceiling.'"
Evan's application went something like this: "I want a movie theater to watch movies with my family, and the rest of the basement finished so I can play with kids."
Or just relax.
The day after they got to see their new basement, the boys came home from school and disappeared.
"Where are they? Downstairs," said Kathy. "The first thing they did was go down and chill on the couch."
The Saldanas watched "Wreck It, Ralph" on their first family movie night in their new space. They had a choice of new hats to wear. Evan received several the day of the reveal. Mark Fulford gave him a camouflage hat with fur and earflaps; the homebuilders, a hard hat. There are logo baseball caps.
"The family rates their theater "wonderful."
"Oh my gosh," said Kathy. "The speakers. Surround sound. Lights dim. You really feel like you're in a theater.
"Everyone cozied up in a favorite spot in the sectional and didn't move."
Make-A-Wish Illinois grants the wishes of children with life-threatening medical conditions to enrich their lives.
For more Make-A-Wish Illinois information or to find out how you can help, call (217) 544-9470 or visit www.wishes.org.
Family: parents Dennis and Kathy Saldana, and siblings, Jessie, 11, Isabella, 7, and Sophia. 6
Can you cook? "I can make pizza crackers. It's just like pizza, but a smaller slice. It's a cracker with tomato sauce, pepperoni and cheese. I put it in the microwave and eat it."
Favorite breakfast: Bacon, eggs and fried potatoes.
Favorite dessert: Doughnuts, any doughnuts, glazed and sprinkled doughnuts
Favorite foods: "I like cheeseburgers, hot dogs and broccoli. I like it boiled, with Parmesan cheese and butter. "He has red sauce running through his veins," said his mom. "He has to have it for everything
Favorite TV show: "SpongeBob SquarePants"
Favorite book: "There's a Boy in the Girls' Bathroom."
Favorite movie: "Evan Almightly," "Super Mario."
What do you like to do? "When it's nice out, we ride bikes and scooters with neighbors. We just ride around the cul-de-sac."
What do you do on a rainy day? "Stay inside and play video games."
Favorite game to play with your brother? "The Legend of Zelda."
Favorite subjects: Science and math
What do you want to be when you grow up? "I want to be a chef." "His first restaurant is going to be called Crunch and Chew," said Kathy. "He has roles for every person in the family. Sophia would be the after-dinner entertainment. She puts a blanket over her head and does circles in the living room."