Blairsville teen fulfills paranormal wish

Blairsville teen fulfills paranormal wish
April 8, 2011
By Jeff Himler
TribLive News

Teresa Hall always knows where her 16-year-old daughter, Amanda Shank, is on Wednesday evenings. That's because the local mother and daughter both have a standing weekly appointment in front of the TV screen that night. Both are dedicated fans of the "Ghost Hunters" reality show that is now in its seventh season on the Syfy cable network.

"I think we've watched it since the first episode," Hall said of the popular program that follows the on-site investigations of a ghost-hunting team based in Rhode Island.

Shank may never have imagined she'd be able to meet one-on-one with cast members from her favorite TV show. But, that's just what happened the weekend of March 19, thanks to Unity: A Journey of Hope, an area nonprofit organization that grants wishes to those with "a life-limiting illness."

Shank has been diagnosed with a rare form of sarcoma, which is a type of cancer that can develop either from bones or soft tissue. It developed into a tumor in her pelvic area that surgeons removed in January.

Shank was used to being active, playing volleyball and basketball and riding dirt bikes and quads. "I used to work out every day," she said. But, when she would lie on her stomach, she started to feel uncomfortable and experience pain.

Her mother noted the teen had been in and out of the hospital since September, when doctors began searching for the cause of her pain. Finally, X-rays and CAT scans revealed a large mass.

"On Jan. 9, they found the tumor," Hall said, adding, "They didn't know it was cancer until they opened her up to operate. They told me if the operation took longer than 45 minutes, it would be cancer. After an hour and a half, I knew that's what it was."

In addition to seeing a doctor in Latrobe, Shank has been treated by Pittsburgh specialists at Children's Hospital and at Magee-Womens Hospital, where her surgery took place.

Hall said her daughter's cancer is a recurring type, but it is slow to progress. Every three months, Shank will check in for further CAT scans and blood work to see if new tumors have developed. Her mother is hopeful that any further growth can also be taken care of surgically, "If they can catch it as it starts to form."

According to Hall, her daughter's particular type of sarcoma is rare, with only two previous cases documented -- both also diagnosed among patients in their teens.

In an encouraging sign, she noted, "One of the girls who had it is now a mother of two."

Hall said a medical staff member who helped treat her daughter in Latrobe initially nominated her for a wish through the well-known Make-A-Wish program. But, ultimately, Shank was matched up with the Unity group to realize her dream of meeting members of the "Ghost Hunters" crew in person.

"I wanted to see TAPS," Shank said, referring to The Atlantic Paranormal Society, the ghost-hunting group that is featured on the series. Her backup wishes were either to go to Disney World or to see Taylor Lautner, who plays a werewolf in the "Twilight" film series.

While the Unity charity specializes in granting wishes for adults, founding spouses John and Bobbi Robinson of Vanderbilt, Fayette County, also have made wishes come true for younger recipients, and Shank's request seemed tailor-made for their nonprofit organization.

"We know a lot of people in the paranormal world, " John Robinson explained.

"It was an easy request," Bobbi Robinson said, noting the TAPS group has been a willing wish partner. "The guys are great."

Unity had partnered with TAPS team members Dave Tango and Chris Williams to fulfill an earlier wish last year during an event at ScareHouse, a haunted attraction in Pittsburgh.

For Shank's wish trip, Unity arranged for her and her mother to attend an event in Radford, Va., where fans of the otherworldly had the chance to meet paranormal celebrities including members of TAPS. While there, the Blairsville duo also joined a tour of the allegedly haunted St. Albans. A former sanatorium, it opened in the 1800s as a boys' school and more recently served as a hospital before closing.

In addition to admission to the event, Unity arranged to have the cost of their accommodations covered and provided them gasoline money for the drive of more than six hours from Pennsylvania.

Unity partnered with the sanatorium, Ideal Event Management and the Best Western hotel in Radford to make the trip happen. Also, Crystal Atteberry, a volunteer videographer for Unity, captured images to document Shank's wish experience.

During a "meet and greet" session, Shank and her mother met key members of TAPs --...including founders Jason Hawes and Grant Wilson, who work as plumbers for Roto Rooter when they aren't leading their team into the field to investigate reported hauntings.

Shank had wanted most of all to meet her favorite member of the TAPS team -- Tango, who specializes in evidence analysis and used to perform professional magic shows, according to the "Ghost Hunters" show website. "He's funny," Shank said of Tango.

Though Tango wasn't present, Shank was able to have a cell phone conversation with her favorite ghost hunter about their shared interest in the paranormal. She also snagged a signed photo of Tango posing with his father, Bruce, who was on hand for the Virginia gathering of paranormal fans.

In addition to the souvenir, the mother and daughter returned from Virginia with what they feel may be a document of paranormal activity at St. Albans. Using a recorder Hall purchased for the trip, they say they taped some EVPs. Hall explained the ghost-hunting term: "That's electronic voice phenomena. They capture (recorded) voices of ghosts that you can't hear" listening live with the unaided ear.

The recording includes what they think could be the plea of a female spirit. While others are speaking, Hall claims, "You can hear her come into the background. She says, 'Help.' "

"It's pretty neat," Shank said.

"You've got to go in with an open mind," Hall said of the approach she and her daughter took to the ghost-hunting trip. But, she added, "You have to be skeptical."

On the "Ghost Hunters" show, she noted, "If they see something, they'll try to debunk it before they say it's paranormal." Instead of a message from beyond, seemingly strange sounds or lights moving in an empty building could be "wind blowing through a crack or a shadow from lights outside," she said.

From personal experience

Hall indicated she has always been attuned to the spirit world, a trait she said is shared with the other female members of her family and has been passed down to Shank.

Hall said family members detected signs of "four or five entities" from the spirit world allegedly sharing space with them when they resided in a different, larger house in Blairsville.

Shank noted there are certain procedures to follow when attempting to make contact with a spirit who may be hanging about in a haunted building, as demonstrated by the TAPS team: "You ask them why they're there, and you ask them to make a noise to let you know they're there."

Using such techniques, Shank said she's explored some local sites that are thought to be haunted, bringing along some of her relatives and friends .

She also accompanied family members to Gettysburg to seek out some of the many apparitions said to be associated with the Civil War battle site. A return trip is planned in June, she said.

"The best time to go on a ghost hunt is when there's a storm with lightning," Hall claims. The theory is that disembodied spirits "use that electricity to manifest themselves."

According to Hall, when she and her family moved to their current dwelling, there were many extra possessions that wouldn't fit in their new house and ended up in storage. "I've still got a trailer and a shed full of stuff." she said.

Hall said she wants to give back to Unity and is planning to donate some of her excess items to the organization for a tag sale that is planned to raise money to fund more wishes. "They can use it to help another child," she said.

The Robinsons launched Unity, a Journey of Hope in April 2007. It is an outgrowth of a residential hospice house they opened in September 2005 in an old 1850s schoolhouse they'd remodeled. They dubbed the hospice facility Unity, A Journey Home, since the building had been known as the Unity School.

The practice of granting wishes at first was limited to the Robinsons' hospice residents, provided as part of the care and therapy they received. Originally, "We had no intentions of doing what we're doing now," said John Robinson.

But they got such satisfaction out of granting wishes that they decided to extend the program to others in the community.

Wish-granting became the primary focus of their charity in July of 2007 when factors including the economy prompted them to close the doors of the residential hospice and John Robinson went back to serving as a visiting hospice nurse.

Since then, the charity has granted 66 wishes, 95 percent of them for recipients in the greater Pittsburgh area.

John Robinson noted the organization is always looking for volunteers, wish sponsors and funding. For more information about Unity, a Journey of Hope, call 724-677-4789 or visit

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