PHOENIX — Ben Bicknese is a tinkerer, the kind of kid who loves to take things apart and build new things with the parts.
"I like to be science-y. I like the process of making," he said, detailing his plans to build a hologram light saber.
After he was diagnosed with kidney cancer at age 6, chemotherapy and treatment weakened his immune system, keeping him stuck at home or in the hospital in Tucson, where he was "really bored," he said.
"He couldn’t go anywhere. He couldn’t go out to the grocery store because we couldn’t risk him getting sick," said his mother, Cecilia Bicknese.
His only source of excitement became online shopping, where he could order robots and fountain pens to take apart.
Beyond the joy of toys, he often wondered about the processes behind it all — what happens between clicking "buy" and seeing the package at the door.
"He was telling me every day that I need this or that, even the littlest thing. Just the joy of knowing that something was coming became, like, out of control," Cecilia said. That’s when she decided to contact his favorite retailer, Amazon.
So when Ben woke up Tuesday, the day after this 8th birthday, instead of heading to school, he found out he was going to one of the four Amazon fulfillment centers in Phoenix.
A dream to see behind the scenes
Ben, his family and some of the hospital staff who have cared for him at Banner Children's at Diamond Children's Medical Center traveled from Tucson on Tuesday to tour the center.
As he walked around the center, which is more than 1 million square feet and has more than 2,000 employees, he smiled, laughed, made faces and craned his neck to see the labyrinthine 8 miles of conveyor belts. To explain his excitement he used a metaphor.
"This is the earth," he said, mimicking its explosion with his hands. "Mind blown. It turned my life — I was upside down — back up."
Amazon staff organized a scavenger hunt for him in one of the endless aisles of merchandise. Following their directions, he found and pulled 10 items from the shelves and dropped them into one of the signature yellow bins used to fulfill orders.
Then, upstairs, he helped package them. He and his sister, Madison, carefully placed a Star Wars Lego kit, board games, bracelet-making kit, two Amazon Fire tablets and more into boxes.
When it was time to put the shipping labels on the boxes, the staff revealed a surprise: The packages were for Ben and his family. He grinned.
"My favorite one is Alexa," he said, referencing the Alexa Voice Service on his new Amazon Echo speaker. "Now I can ask Alexa, 'What's the weather, Alexa? How old is my grandpa? When's my dad's birthday?' "
Setting the tone for a new year
The surprise visit marks a new start: Ben is finally healthy enough to travel and play outside.
He finished the most recent of many rounds of chemotherapy in October, and just a couple of weeks ago doctors cleared him to go back to school full time.
Last weekend he traveled to Universal Studios Hollywood with his grandparents for his birthday. At the end of the month he’ll be tested to make sure no problems have come back.
"He’s just shocked and so happy, happy to be out like a normal person and doing things. Even just going to school, it makes him so happy," Cecilia Bicknese said.
School is also boring, Ben said, "but better being bored in there than being in the hospital with a needle in me."
Despite his interest in technology, design and supply chains, Ben says he aspires to be a surgeon "cause I've been cut open a million times."
The Amazon visit feels like closure for the family, Bicknese said.
"We’ve been waiting so long for him to do stuff, and it’s finally time that he can go out. So we’re just happy."
One of the first things he’ll probably do with his gifts is play Blake Shelton’s "Boys 'Round Here" on the Amazon Echo, his current favorite song, even though it has a few bad words.
"I'm OK with that. I've lived my life for that," he said, smiling.