Perhaps without even realizing it, a teenage girl from New Haven asked Make-A-Wish Connecticut for a gift that essentially describes what drives, defines, and motivates the organization in the first place: a smile.
The 17-year-old girl has a genetic disorder; the treatment she receives impairs the enamel of her teeth, making her exceedingly self-conscious about her appearance.
“The thing is, she loves to take selfies, but she never smiles when she takes them because of her insecurity,” explains Pam Keough, president and CEO of Make-A-Wish Foundation’s Connecticut chapter in Trumbull. “Her wish was to have a beautiful smile. That’s the kind of wish that speaks directly to our mission to deliver hope and joy to as many children with critical illnesses as we can. Basically,” Keough adds, “this girl’s wish is our mission.”
In 2019, the Make-A-Wish Foundation, nationally, granted more than 15,600 wishes to children who had been diagnosed with critical and, in many cases, life-threatening illnesses. As its website states: “For children diagnosed with critical illnesses, a wish come true can be a crucial turning point in their lives. A wish can be the spark that helps these children believe that anything is possible and gives them the strength to fight harder against their illnesses. This impact is why we are driven to make every one of these wishes come true.”
Since its inception in 1980, Make-A-Wish has given hope to and lifted the spirits of more than a quarter of a million youngsters. For more than 35 years, the organization has been the largest of its kind in the world.
The Connecticut chapter, one of 60 coast to coast, was established in 1986.
“Connecticut really isn’t that big a state, and in a way that’s what is really special and unique about our chapter. Our relatively smaller size makes it easier to work closely with individual and corporate donors from one end of the state to the other,” Keough notes. “What’s more, if we want to physically go see the family of a child whose wish we are working on, we never have to hop on a plane to do it.” Often, that’s a quicker and ultimately safer option than what other state chapters have available to them.
While that kind of logistical and operational benefit has always been of importance, it has taken on even more consequence during the coronavirus pandemic. And while a small state does allow some opportunities that larger regions may not enjoy, social distancing and economic strife nevertheless bring along with them other challenges. Most significant among those challenges is being able to raise the funds necessary to continue to grant the wishes and run the chapter in the ways Make-A-Wish Connecticut has come to depend upon.
“We’ve been working for almost a year now to diversify our fundraising efforts in such a way as to fully counteract the downturn in financial support – a downturn directly related to COVID-19,” says Tara Navara, chief development officer. Navara acknowledges that in 2020, Make-A-Wish Connecticut has been at 50 percent of its average fiscal goal for the year.
“The flip side,” she adds, “is that we are still able to count on support from corporations, from grants, and even from individuals, some of whom end up giving just a dollar – which is obviously a donation straight from the heart, because they are thinking about their own loved ones. These individual supporters are wonderful,” Navara says.
“Our corporate relationships have also been so strong over the years, so much so that once these companies are able to rebound, we just know we’ll be able to count on them to the extent we did before,” Navara continues. “We’ll get through the pandemic together, and we’ll bounce back together.”
Connecticut parents, grandparents, and children have a unique opportunity again this year to make a difference. Through the Macy’s “Believe” campaign, folks can write letters to Santa and drop them in a big red letterbox in a Macy’s store or send them online. Macy’s will donate $1 for every letter written, up to $1 million, to Make-A-Wish, to create life-changing wishes for children all across the country. To send a letter online or to donate directly to Make-A-Wish, visit macys.com and click on the maroon “Believe” banner. Macy’s has partnered with Make-A-Wish to raise funds for wish-granting since 2008.
Make-A-Wish is a nonprofit corporation, nationally headquartered in Arizona, that spends every non-operational dollar on the specific granting of wishes, accounting for nearly 80 percent of its revenue. The wishes these children have stretch from superhero visits and backyard treehouses to scuba-diving lessons and horse riding. It is conventional lore throughout the organization, nationally and locally, that a granted wish not only provides promise and pleasure to the children, but also unites their friends, neighbors, and communities. The collaborations forged by Make-A-Wish transform entire families as much as they do the individual children whose dreams come true.
The Trumbull staff is especially aware of this special dynamic, partially because their enduring success has put them in touch with so many children, so many friends, and so many neighbors and communities.
“I am more than happy to say that we have granted every eligible wish that we’ve been asked to grant,” notes Pam Keough. “We’ve never had to turn one down.” That is not to say that the future will be without its challenges. Given these difficult and uncertain times, maintaining such a stellar track record will require continued hard work, dedication, cooperation, and perhaps even a little luck. But Keough and her Trumbull staff are committed to going the distance, and they remain entirely optimistic.
“Most of our referrals for wishes come from the families themselves. Many also come from social workers and from the nurses and doctors at Connecticut hospitals where these youngsters unfortunately have to spend a lot of time,” explains Lisa Brown, program director. With such unwavering appeals, it is unambiguously clear how important it is to overcome even the most dire financial and logistical confrontations, in order to continue to grant wishes.
The entire staff at Make-A-Wish Connecticut is laser focused on that objective.
“Our chapter has grown over the years, and as a result, we have had to add new people,” observes Carin Buckman, marketing communications and digital manager. Staff members at the regional Make-A-Wish have come from many different professions – from other non-profit organizations, and sometimes even from medical device and healthcare service companies. That makes sense, since many of those professionals have first-hand knowledge of all the various kinds of diagnostic and treatment efforts required by these children. For many of them across Connecticut, these efforts can be quite wearying, which makes dreaming and wish-making all the more fulfilling.
All Make-A-Wish children, staffers, and volunteers around the world have Christopher Greicius to thank for getting the ball rolling in Phoenix 40 years ago. When Christopher was seven and being treated for terminal Stage IV leukemia, a U.S. Customs officer named Tommy Austin – a friend of Christopher’s mother – heard that his dream was to become a police officer, but would likely not survive to the age of eight. Austin and several of his colleagues commissioned a police uniform in Christopher’s size, scheduled a helicopter ride on a police chopper, and arranged for the boy to take a police academy exam. Christopher, who died in May 1980 – two days after putting on his uniform and pinning on his badge – had the pleasure and pride of knowing his life’s grandest wish had come true.
It is in this same spirit that Make-A-Wish Connecticut continues its mission. To help with the promotion of that mission, with the fundraising needed to support it, and with the volunteering effort necessary to actually make wishes come true, the chapter works tirelessly on a series of projects and events. These activities have such self-explanatory titles as the Walk for Wishes, the Taste of Wishes, the Trailblaze Challenge, Wish Night, the Evening of Wishes Gala, and more. Even during the pandemic, many events – a bit scaled-back and carefully arranged with an eye on safety and well-being – were still held, some virtually. When the pandemic subsides, the group’s event calendar will once again be as broad and active as it has been for the last three-and-a-half decades.
All wishes have challenges of their own, especially these days, when so many contractors and other local professionals – people who in the past have used their skills to make wishes come true – have pandemic-related trials and tribulations of their own that affect their ability to come aboard to the extent they’d prefer. The Make-A-Wish Connecticut team is always eager to put out the call for more volunteers who can assist in many ways to turn dreams and wishes into reality.
“Before COVID, 70 percent of the wishes we received were travel-related – like Disney World and other exciting destinations,” says Lisa Brown. “Now they include a lot of local shopping sprees, room makeovers, and the sort of wishes that can be restricted to the area and even endure far longer than any destination visit.” That, she notes, speaks to the fact that so many of the young people involved handle the new social reality – and its many limitations – with maturity far beyond their years.
One of the clearest examples of that is the recent wish of a student from Newtown with cystic fibrosis. She is very involved in her school’s Unified Arts Program, which focuses on opportunities to develop social and leadership skills in a safe, friendly environment. The wish of this student, who enjoys wonderfully close relationships with her high school classmates, was for a new Unified Lounge to be built in her high school. She wanted her friends in the program to be able enjoy a modern, comfortable lounge between classes day after day.
“These kids could wish for anything,” Lisa Brown says with more than just a little pride and astonishment. “Anything! But she, like so many others, just want to give back for what they’ve been given, even when it may seem to others that they’ve been given so little in the bigger picture. These children are so special in so many ways.”
Which is precisely why Make-A-Wish Connecticut does whatever it can to remain so special – in so many ways.
For more information on Make-A-Wish Connecticut and how you can help, visit wish.org/ct/ways-help-us or call 1-203-261-9044 [toll-free, 1-877-203-9474].
Connecticut journalist Joel Samberg has also profiled and written for the YMCA of Greater Hartford, the Gengras Center at the University of Saint Joseph, Ethel Walker School, The Children’s Center of Hamden, and several other schools and organizations in the state.
Photography courtesy of Make-A-Wish Connecticut