There aren’t many 5 year olds who fall in love with a blind, Italian opera singer. But then, Kaliana Warford, Kali for short, was no ordinary 5 year old. Kali, now 10, was diagnosed with congenital myotonic dystrophy when she was 3. Her diagnosis led to the same diagnosis for her then 23-year-old mother. Because her mother could not care for her, Kali’s grandparents, Penni and John Warford, brought their granddaughter home and legally adopted her when she was 2.
The Warford family loves music. Their iPods are loaded with eclectic mixes of all types of music: gospel to country to classical and everything in between. So it was only a matter of time before Kali heard legendary opera and classical music tenor Andrea Bocelli. She was immediately smitten, Says Penni. When Penni found a video online of Bocelli singing a parody of his famous song, Con te Partirò (A Time to Say Goodbye),” to Sesame Street’s Elmo, the little girl became obsessed. “She watched it every night,” Penni said.
Pretty soon, the Warford iPods were filled with Bocelli songs and Kali’s iPad stocked with more videos.
Kali was so enamored of the singer that she changed her Make-a-Wish Foundation request from visiting the Statue of Liberty to meeting and singing with Bocelli. Make-A-Wish staff were happy to change the wish, but made it clear that they had little power granting wishes involving celebrities. Kali’s would be even more challenging given Bocelli’s grueling travel schedule and his home base in Italy. While the Warfords waited to hear from Make-a-Wish, Bocelli announced a free concert in New York’s Central Park, with tickets available online for one day only on a first-come, first-served basis. Seventy thousand tickets were distributed within 10 minutes.
Luckily, a set of those tickets when to Kali’s dad and godparents, who live in Virginia.
There was no question as to whether they’d go. In September, the Warfords flew across the country from their home near Sacramento to the Big Apple. They stood in line for hours in the hot and sticky weather to make sure they got a good spot on the lawn. Then, just before the concert began, a storm hit and the temperature plummeted. “The music was beautiful, but the weather made the experience miserable and very disappointing,” said Penni. To add insult to injury, the Warford’s return flight had to make an emergency landing in Omaha, Nebraska, and they wound up taking a train home.
A few months later, however, the Make-a-Wish people called. Bocceli would meet Kali backstage at the Teatro Carlo Felice in Genoa, Italy, just before the final dress rehearsal for Romeo and Juliet.
The entire trip was magical, says Penni, from the first-class treatment on the airplane to the waterfront hotel in Genoa to the personalized, red carpet treatment from the Make-a-Wish team.
After a day to acclimate, the Warfords found themselves in Bocelli’s dressing room, the room filled with well wishers and cameras. “Kali got a bit star-struck when she stood next to him at the piano while he sang to her,” Penni recalls, “and decided she wasn’t going to sing.” Instead, Kali watched mesmerized as Bocelli sang two of her favorites songs, Canto Della Terra and Sogno. “She was just staring at him in a way I’ve never seen her look at anyone,” Penni remembers.
The family spent another week touring Florence and Rome on their own, but even those great cities paled in comparison to seeing Kali with Bocelli.
The experience has had a major affect on Kali, Penni says. “As someone with myotonic dystrophy, she has had a tough life. She’s a child, so she doesn’t struggle emotionally with it as an adult might.” But because she lacks facial expression, her speech is difficult to understand, she wears braces on her feet and legs, and she has other physical challenges, “she gets a fair amount of attention from strangers that isn’t always positive.”
So to be treated like a rock star, as Kali was on the Make-a-Wish trip “made her feel really special and important and loved.” And, Penni says, “it has given her an amazing story to tell everyone she meets,” a story that makes people pay attention to her “in a very positive way.”
Kali starts fourth grade in the fall, where she attends general education classes with the help of a personal aide. Although she struggles with math, “her reading is off the charts,” Penni says. “She has huge strengths and weaknesses, but she is very happy and positive and loves life.”
She has one more Bocelli experience to look forward to: a concert in San Jose in November, a gift from the singer to make up for the freezing Central Park concert.
You can learn more about the Make-a-Wish Foundation and the work it does to bring hope, strength, and joy to children with life-threatening medical conditions here, and about Andrea Bocelli’s foundation at its web site, www.andreabocellifoundation.org.