By Cara L. Dempski
BOYCEVILLE — For the second year in a row, a local youth has been chosen to be grand marshal of the Shriners Homecoming Parade in River Falls.
Eight-year-old Nicholas Wahl of Boyceville has been selected by the St. Croix Valley Shriners Club to serve as the 2016 grand marshal for the Shrine’s annual “Little East-West” football game and parade in River Falls.
Wahl follows in the shoes of Downing’s Marcus Kadinger who was chosen as the grand marshals for last year’s parade.
This year’s parade will be held Saturday, September 24 prior to the University of Wisconsin – River Falls homecoming football game against Southwestern University.
Milt Helmer, representative of the St. Croix Valley Shriners, said Wahl was chosen via committee for a specific reason.
“Not only was Nicholas helped by the Shriners, but his father was also a patient of Shriners Hospitals for Children,” Helmer explained.
Nicholas is the son of Jeremy and Ashley Wahl. He was born with a “split thumb” on his right hand.
Ashley explained Nicholas was born with two thumbs on his hand, one smaller than the other. The smaller appendage could not be used.
Nicholas went through surgery to remove the extra thumb when he was approximately 18 months old. The removal surgery was performed so carefully the scar Nicholas has is barely visible.
“They did a really good job,” Ashley said. “They went along with the skin line and everything.”
The thumb on Nicholas’s right hand remains slightly smaller than the thumb on his left hand.
He is seen annually at the Shriners hospital in Minneapolis, Minnesota, for check-ups to make sure his tendons and muscles are working and aligned correctly, and to ensure he maintains his strength and range of motion.
Nowadays, he is an active boy who is in second grade at Tiffany Creek Elementary School in Boyceville. In the summer, he loves to go for walks, play in parks, ride his bike and walk his dog.
This past summer, Nicholas took part in 4-H and took a cooking project, a Lego project and a coloring project to county fair as a Cloverbud.
“I want to be a chef when I grow up,” he said when asked about his cooking skills.
Nicholas enjoys attending school and likes to help his mother and father cook. He also likes playing video games, building with Legos and watching movies with his parents.
Nicholas’ father, Jeremy, was born with Spina Bifida, a birth defect in which the membranes around the spinal cord do not close completely prior to birth. Spina Bifida left Jeremy with a clubfoot, meaning his left foot turned inward toward his right foot.
The condition was treated by orthopedists at Shriners Hospital.
“When I was young, we went to Shriners, and they made a brace for my leg,” Jeremy said.
He wore the brace until he was in fifth grade, when he outgrew it. Jeremy said his leg still turns somewhat inward, but it’s not something that has impacted his ability to move around.
Jeremy’s younger brother, Joshua, was also born with Spina Bifida and was Jeremy’s inspiration for becoming a Shriner.
“I have a friend that was a master mason (Freemasons), and he was part of the local Shrine Club,” Jeremy said. “I asked him how to become a Shriner.”
Jeremy explained that seeing his brother in a wheelchair and seeing the time it took his mother, and eventually group home and nursing home staff, to take care of Joshua made him want to join a Shrine club.
He also said a person must reach the Master Mason level of the Freemasons before they are eligible to join a Shrine.
Jeremy Wahl became a Master Mason in April 2015, and a Shriner May 30, 2015. He said he believes he and Nicholas are the first father-son Shriners Hospital patients to be featured in a Shriners’ parade in Minnesota or Wisconsin.
The “Little East West”
Shriners regularly take part in parades across North America to draw attention to their cause of helping sick children. Helmer explained the parade and football game were inspired by a larger Shriner celebration.
The St. Croix valley Shriners took the name “Little East West” for the celebration from the “East West” shrine game held every January between Division 1 NCAA football teams.
“We call it “Little East West” because we’re not talking division one schools,” Helmer said. “It’s still ‘East West’ because originally it was one division three school from Wisconsin and one from Minnesota.”
Helmer said the Wisconsin versus Minnesota aspect of the game went on for a couple years before no more Minnesota schools were able to come. At that point, the Little East West became UW – River Falls’ homecoming football game.
The Wahl family will attend a banquet on September 23 at Junior’s in downtown River Falls, where Nicholas will be the guest of honor. The morning of September 24, he will lead the Shrine/Homecoming parade before heading to Ramer Field to be introduced prior to the start of the game.
“I love parades,” he said. “And I’m excited to ride in the convertible.”
He added he is hoping to throw candy to spectators from the car.
The Little East West game is one of St. Croix Valley Shrine Club’s major fundraisers, and the money raised from admissions and concessions at the game is used to provide care and healing for children all over North America.
The Shriners operate 22 hospitals in North America. The majority of the hospitals assist young children with spinal disorders or injuries, orthopedic conditions and burns. Many hospitals also treat children for issues related to cleft lips or palates.
Each day, Shriners, Freemasons and other associated groups contribute $4 million to the care of the children served by Shriners Hospitals.
Helmer also said Shriners fund the “mobile” program.
“Mobiles are kind of like an ambulance for families and children,” he explained. “They get them to the hospital and back home at no cost.”
Helmer mentioned this service is available to families and children from infant to age 18, regardless of the family’s ability to pay.
The St. Croix Valley Shrine Club would like to invite everyone to join in the fun September 24 in River Falls. The parade will start at 10:30 a.m. and the game is scheduled to start at 1 p.m.