BENTON (AP) — A visit to a special police training exercise made Eli Levandowski-Gifford's day.
Eli, a Benton first-grader who was diagnosed with stage four pancreatic neuroendocrine carcinoma tumors last year, was invited to stop by as Illinois State Police SWAT, methamphetamine team and Southern Illinois Drug Task Force conducted training in Benton on May 2.
"I like it," Eli said as he steered a "very cool" police robot across the parking lot of a former car dealership.
Eli, his siblings Chastity and Caleb, and mom and dad Jennifer and Robert Gifford, got VIP treatment at the training exercise, including a close-up look at equipment used to support the state police mission.
Chauffeured around the large parking lot in an ATV, Eli got to check out a helicopter, zodiac boat, tactical reserve vehicle and more. He even got the opportunity to shoot a Simunition, or simulated ammunition, gun used in training and suit up to make entry into a building with the team.
"I'm speechless. I don't know what to say. It's overwhelming," Eli's mom said. "The last few weeks have been hard. He's getting weaker and time is getting shorter, so this ... it's great."
The visit came about from a "shop with a cop" event Eli participated in with Benton police Officer Mike McDaniel and state Troopers Jonathan Edwards and Robert Swift last December.
"We went into it thinking we were going to do something good for a little kid, but we got more out of it than Eli did. He changed our lives," Edwards, who is assigned to the drug task force, said. "He's so strong. He taught us a lesson. Honestly, he made me appreciate what I have."
Edwards thought of Eli, who had mentioned his interest in SWAT, when the training exercise was planned in Benton and ran the idea up the chain of command.
"We thought it would be a great opportunity to show him some really cool equipment and raise awareness for him and his family — what they are going through — and for others who are going through similar experiences," Edwards said.
Master Sgt. David Fitts said he hopes the visit "is something Eli and his family will never forget."
"I'm glad we're able to put a smile on Eli's face," Fitts said.
McDaniel stopped by the training in his off-duty time to watch Eli enjoy the tour.
"There is no way I would have missed this. This is about what Eli's done for us; what we've learned from him. We take things for granted and we shouldn't. Here's a little boy, going through chemo, and he still goes to school when he can. He still wants to grow and learn, despite his struggles," McDaniel said. "Even if he gets just 10 minutes of happiness out of this, it's worth it. It's an overwhelming feeling to know we're doing what we can to make Eli's day."