Angels Watching Over Me – The Gabby Wingler Story

by Lyn Vandebrake

Heart shaped stepping stones lead to Gabby Wingler’s two-story Victorian playhouse. It is 17 feet tall with both main room and loft being 9’X12’. Adults entering through the miniature front door will have to stoop a little. There’s not another playhouse like it – anywhere. It is a home built with many hands, but mostly from many hearts.

In 1998, six-year old Gabby Wingler was diagnosed with Rhabdomyosarcoma cancer of the nasal pharangiaf, having a baseball-sized tumor in her sinuses.

Considered inoperable, Gabby was given two weeks to two months to live. Even with surgery which might buy her some time, doctors said the child had zero percent chance for recovery.

With two major surgeries and extended hospital stays, a multitude of doctors and nurses, specialists and surgeons – and not the least of these, the Lord Jesus Christ – Gabby and her family not only survived, but triumphed through this experience.

Along the way, Make-A-Wish Foundation of Northern Arizona became involved. In June 1999, Kathy Levine, Wish Coordinator, interviewed Gabby to see what her ‘wish’ from the Foundation might be. A two-story Victorian playhouse was the ready answer, and with it came the child’s blueprints; pencil drawings with a floor plan.

“We had lots of time to dream,” said Deborah Wingler, Gabby’s mother. “Our hospital stays were long. We spent the time dreaming of just what Gabby would like to have in the future with a possible playhouse.”

“I wanted a place to have sleep-overs and to do dress-up and read,” said Gabby. “I definitely wanted it to be two-story and I wanted it to have a pond.”

With these ideas in mind and Gabby’s basic plans in hand, Levine contacted Jean Richmond, Executive Director of Northern Arizona Home Builders (NAHB). Levin also accessed the internet in hopes of locating professional building plans for the structure. There weren’t any.

In the fall of ’99, Coconino Community College, Flagstaff, Arizona, developed a class for the specific purpose of designing the authentic Victorian playhouse. Students visited the Wingler’s subdivision home, evaluating the possible playhouse site, interviewed Gabby and reviewed Flagstaff’s building codes. This class, with teacher Nancy Norberg, would design and provide the blueprints. Joseph Costion, Industrial Technology Instructor, oversaw the materials list.

Northern Arizona University’s School of Fine Arts designed the built-ins, kitchen area and various shelving. NAU School of Communications filmed a video of the project in progress.

Dan Atkinson became involved as General Contractor supervising the construction. “Dan took on the monumental responsibility of contacting local subcontractors,” said Levine. “Building supplies, windows, woodwork, carpet, doors, fixtures and labor were all donated.”

Authentic Victorian doors made of 100-year old pine were given by Steve Johnson, Creative Touch. Custom made windows complete with screens were donated by Don Henry, the Pelia Window Store.

Warner’s Nursery and Landscape along with United Auto Workers-General Motors (UAW-GM) partnered together with landscape architect Minda Stevens and employees from McCoy Motors of Flagstaff to install a fish pond, irrigation system, waterfall and landscaping. Flowers grace the walkway lined with a picket fence from Homco Ace.

“Our normal wishes cost between $3500 and $5000,” said Levine. “We had no expectation of what the community might do with this project. We just asked.” Levin often refers to Make-A-Wish project volunteers as the back-bone of their foundation.

Make-A-Wish grants wishes to children under the age of 18 with a life-threatening illness. It is the largest wish-granting charity in the world with 80 chapters in the United States and its territories and 20 international affiliates spanning five continents.

“It just snowballed,” Levin said as she described the outpouring of finances, energy and love. “Donations of materials and time came from every direction. Not one person or business said no. This tells you just what kind of community Flagstaff really is.”

“It was a privilege to be part of this project,” said General Contractor Dan Atkinson. “It was all of us working together that made the dream, Gabby’s wish, possible.”

“The creativity displayed throughout the playhouse and the yard is remarkable. The gifts from businesses, individuals and corporations have been monumental,” said Levin during the ceremony presenting the Victorian playhouse to Gabby on Friday, June 9, 2000. “This project has brought the best out in all of us.”

Levin presented heart shaped rocks for partners in the project to put in Gabby’s walkway leading to the playhouse. Gabby made her own presentation by giving Atkinson a handmade thank you card and drawing. Each hugged the other tightly.

“This is bigger than I ever expected,” Gabby said. “It’s just so elegant.”

Brenda Cosse and Jackie Shrader, interior decorators for the playhouse, added a china cabinet, table with tea set and many dress-up clothes, hats and jewelry. They hand-made curtains, custom covered the window seat cushions and hand-painted the table and chair set.

A winding staircase leads to the second story where one finds the book corner complete with mounds of pillows and story books. The window seat overlooks the garden and fish pond.

The presentation celebration of the playhouse concluded with a ribbon-cutting and grand tour.

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As a writer covering the story, I was exceedingly fortunate in being invited back later that evening for the ‘real’ ribbon-cutting and christening of the playhouse – a sleepover, dress-up party with five little girls.

Gabby, sister Gracie, friends Kacie, Shanie and Natalie McChesney were in the midst of hats and beads, tutus and feathers when I arrived. As we sat around a pint-sized table I was served make-believe tea in a dainty cup – and was struck with awe at the adult conversation taking place.

The playhouse is wonderful, all the girls agreed. “And I love it!” said Gabby, exclaiming over its many features that had been a great surprise to her. “It is so much more than I ever expected.”

But each of these girls wanted to tell me the ‘real’ story. It wasn’t about a playhouse. It was about the living God in Heaven and answered prayer.

“The Bible is true,” said ten-year old Natalie. “From cover to cover, it’s true. I believe everything it says and one of those things is ‘Ask and it shall be given to you.’ God had a miracle ready for Gabby. We got that miracle to come down for her with all our prayers.”

Natalie expounded further on this theology with input from 4-year old Gracie. “I think God chose Gabby to do something special because of what she has come through. Gabby can bring hope to those who don’t have any. She can tell them that prayer and faith are big things.”

“I know Jesus lives in my heart,”   said Gracie. “I remember when mom and Gabby were in the hospital. I missed them a lot. It was really sad to have Gabby gone and for her to have cancer. I was two years old when Gabby was having her tumor and I remember praying. Prayers are things you say when you ask Jesus to help you and He did. He healed Gabby.”

Had anyone who was not a believer sat among us at this tea party, they would have come away with a full knowledge of salvation, of the blood of Jesus that was shed so that we might all have eternal life and of answered prayers and faith in the One who answers.

“I remember in the hospital,” said Gabby. “I remember going into my big surgery. It was pretty scary.” Gabby told the story from the moment she was first diagnosed and came to know first hand what CT scans, X-rays and hospital reports were all about.

“As the months passed I got more ill,” Gabby explained. “The Lord really answered all our prayers. A whole lot, like a bunch of churches, were praying for me. Jesus really kept me safe. He helped all the doctors and nurses figure out the tumor and how to fix it.

“I am really happy that the Lord did this – that He let me live. There was a time I thought I might not. I asked my mom, ‘Am I going to die?’ and she said, “No, you are not.’ I remembered this. And I remembered the prayers, the hope, the faith that we all had. I believed it in my heart.”

As we sat around the small table sipping make-believe tea from miniature cups and discussing things of eternal value, it brought to mind Psalm 8:2, “Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings has thou ordained strength…”

I thought on the time when the disciples came to Jesus asking, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” Jesus’ reply was to take a small child and He answered that unless we become as one of these, we shall not enter the kingdom.

Faith. Webster’s Dictionary describes it as, “A belief in the value, truth, or trustworthiness of someone or something.”

William Newton Clark said, “Faith is the daring of the soul to go further than it can see.”

Four-year old Gracie put it this way, “We all just prayed. I just believed Jesus would do it, that He would heal Gabby. And He did.”

“And all things whatsoever ye shall ask in prayer, believing ye shall receive.” Matthew 21:22.

Do miracles still happen today as they did in Bible times? The answer can be found in Gabby Wingler – who not only exhibits excellent vibrant health, but also gives great tea parties.



Update on Gabby Wingler:

Gabby Wingler

Today Gabby is a sophomore honor student, playing violin and softball. Last Christmas, Gabby presented gifts to patients at Phoenix Children’s Hospital, where years ago she’d spent so much time.

“Gabby has a true handle on, ‘To whom much is given, much is required,” said Gabby’s mother Deborah. “She plans on going to medical school and becoming a pediatrician. She understands what she’s come through and wants to give back to others.

“Her relationship with God is very different than most teenagers, even most adults,” Deborah said. “She doesn’t look at the Father in Heaven as a ‘sugar daddy.’ To her, it’s all about having a relationship. She knows she beat the odds, by His grace, by His provision. He is faithful.”

Sister Gracie with Gabby Wingler

Younger sister, Gracie, also an honor student, plays piano competitively on a college level. The sisters are very close. The miniature playhouse, once used for tea parties, is now a quiet place to read and study. It holds fond memories of triumph over struggle – and of hope for the future.










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