The Make-A-Wish Foundation of America chapter that serves Ohio, Indiana and Kentucky is on pace to surpass the 863 wishes that set a national organization record last year and has increased fundraising despite a challenging economy.
Officials say the results are important because they indiciate that the well-known organization is maintaining a significant presence in the treatment of children who have life-threatening medical conditions. The regional chapter expects to grant about 900 wishes in its fiscal year, which ends Aug. 31.
The chapter has increased its wish-granting during a time when its contributions ballooned from $4.8 million in 2009 to $9 million last year. Part of that can be tied to the chapter folding in the previously separate group in northwest Ohio, but it also signals success in the area, said chapter president and CEO Susan McConnell.
“When you see the kids going through a life-threatening medical condition, it takes your breath away, because you see how it changes their lives,” McConnell said. “These kids lose their childhoods. They don’t get to make their own decisions, and they become kind of outcasts. They go through treatment, and they can’t be with other kids.”
On its website, the national organization describes the first wish granted in 1980 when a 7-year-old boy being treated for leukemia was made a law enforcement officer for a day. Officials had a small version of an Arizona Department of Public Safety uniform made for him, and he was sworn in as the first honorary patrolman in its history, in part by passing a test in a battery-operated motorcycle.
Make-A-Wish received tax-exempt status in 1981, and it has since granted 225,040 wishes, it said. In tax documents, the organization reported providing more than $35 million to its 64 chapters during the last fiscal year.
Those grants and contributions help hundreds of children each year, as well as their families. Those include the Clark family of Bradford, which has adopted three children from an Oregon mother. The oldest, Keanan, had his wish granted of going to Disney World in 2006 after undergoing an operation to remove a brain tumor. His younger sister, Destiny, is scheduled to go to Disney World with her family this fall after her severe epilepsy caused a nearly hour-long seizure resulting in significant brain damage.
For Keanan’s trip, a limousine picked up Keanan, parents Scot and Dondra Clark and brother Austin (Destiny was not yet adopted) to drive them to the airport. The highlights included the usual Disney attractions as well as regular bowls of ice cream, a delicacy not often allowed during treatment.
“What some people don’t realize is there is so much medication and so much going on, sometimes even the simplest things are missed,” Dondra Clark said. “Everything about (wish trips) is supposed to be fun.”
The Clarks said that while Keanan is still battling medical issues, including numerous tumors throughout his body, the trip experience and its memories have helped.
“He was a lot happier when we got back,” Scot Clark said. “Even to this day, we have a big frame hanging on the wall with a bunch of pictures from the trip. When people come to the house, he shows them every picture and tells the stories.”
Because of the experience, Scot Clark has become a Make-A-Wish volunteer, which makes him one of about 1,500 working in the regional chapter. The volunteers are assigned to families to work through the wish process.
That process begins with a referral, often from a health care professional. The office confirms the patient’s eligibility — between 2.5 and 18 years of age with a life-threatening condition — and assigns two volunteers to the family to help them decide on an appropriate wish.
Many of the organization’s volunteers started with other connections to the group. For Gerry Wagner, a volunteer from Dayton, that meant donating NASCAR tickets about three years ago. The regional chapter office followed up with a thank-you phone call, and the retired Wagner got more involved.
“I thought it might be kind of upsetting to get involved, but it’s the opposite,” Wagner said. “Once you see how much joy it brings to the kids, all that just seems to be gone.”
McConnell, the regional president and CEO, said Make-A-Wish staffers focus on significant communication with volunteers, families and donors, to which she credits much of the regional chapter’s success.
“We work hard to be part of the treatment plan for kids,” she said. “When you’re happy and excited, you can make anything happen.”