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Spirit: Remembering What Matters

Coins in the Fountain

By Owen C. Franklin

Getting a child you've just met to open up to you can take some time. Usually I'll have them draw or play with their favorite toys and suddenly they'll whisper "Mickey Mouse"

Additional Research by Bruce Mirken

A young boy wants to be a cowboy. A budding author dreams of publishing her book. A generous toddler hopes to be the ice cream man and treat his friends to dessert.

The wish list is as diverse and creative as a child’s imagination.

At the Make-A-Wish Foundation, it’s a "to-do" list. The non-profit organization grants thousands of wishes to children facing life-threatening diseases.

"We pride ourselves on being able to grant almost any wish," said Make-A-Wish spokesman Petri Darby. "But there are some you just can’t do," he adds, recalling a boy who hoped to go to the moon.

The genesis of a mission

Some of the best ideas spring from crisis. It began 20 years ago when 7-year-old Chris Greicius was dying of leukemia.

The boy never lost sight of his life-long goal — to be a police officer. "Chris' dream was the biggest thing in the world to him," said his mother, Linda Bergendahl.

So, Bergendahl and a family friend brought this dream to life.

On April 29th, 1980, Chris was sworn in as an honorary Arizona State trooper. A custom-made uniform, a ride in a helicopter and a meeting with the state’s Department of Public Safety were all part of the gift.

"When the helicopter landed, I expected this very anemic little boy to get out," recalled Officer Frank Shankwitz. "Instead this bundle of energy jumped out of the helicopter and ran over to me."

But all this energy couldn’t cure Chris' disease. He died just a few days after his wish came true.

The tragedy sparked a new mission: granting wishes for sick children. And the Make-A-Wish Foundation was born.

Finding children

Essentially, it’s word of mouth. Make-A-Wish has 81 chapters throughout the country and 18 others worldwide. This network receives wish referrals from medical professionals, parents and even the children themselves.

"Kids get to know and talk to each other at the hospital," said Laurie Kennady, Program Director at Make-A-Wish’s Greater Bay Area Chapter. "They’ll see one kid who just got back from their cruise or their shopping spree … then they wonder ‘what’s this all about and how can I get it?"

Who’s eligible?

It’s a sensitive rule: each child Make-A-Wish serves must be coping with a life-threatening illness. A child must be 2 and a half to 18 years old, legally present in the United States and have the wish approved by a physician.

Rubbing the lamp

A "wish team" is assigned to each referral. Two volunteers strive to answer to a challenging question: what does this child want?

Most wishes start with one of four catch phrases: I want to go to … , I want to be … , I want to meet … , and I want a … Filling in the blanks, however, can take some work.

"Getting a child you’ve just met to open up to you can take some time," said Deanna Brown, a Make-A-Wish volunteer. "Usually I’ll have them draw or play with their favorite toys and suddenly they’ll whisper ‘Mickey Mouse.’"

Waving the wand

More than a simple gift, the "wish experience" is designed to last a lifetime. If a child asks for a computer, s/he may be picked up by a limousine, made manager of a computer store for a day and return home to find a computer set up with a full package of software.

Many high-profile companies and personalities take part in these packages. Nintendo let a young boy act as chairman of the company. The New England Patriots invited a teenage girl to spring training. Robin Williams spent a day visiting with one of his biggest fans.

"Robin Williams was great," said Brown. "For a few hours, he was this child’s buddy."

Wishes today

In just two decades, Make-A-Wish has granted more than 60,000 wishes. These are not gifts for the dying. Instead, each wish celebrates life by highlighting a child’s passions.

"We don’t focus on the child’s illness," said Darby. "But what the wish means for a child."

Owen C. Franklin is a content producer at savvyHEALTH.com.

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