by Julie Bookman
Darien’s dream to be a police officer came true when he was 8. He has the badge and uniform to prove it. The Lawrenceville lad is not likely to forget his exciting episode working patrol with the Smyrna Police Department. Darien (above), even got to arrest a “big thug.” (It didn’t matter that it was all staged.) Darien’s chance to be a “police officer for a day” marked the 4,000th wish granted by Atlanta’s Make-A-Wish chapter.
Caroline’s top wish in the whole wide world was for a Yorkie puppy. She was 6 when a puppy parade was arranged in her honor. The Dacula girl was presented with a sweet puppy she named Boo. When Caroline (left), hugged her Boo for the first time in March 2011, it marked the 5,000th wish granted by the Make-A-Wish chapter that serves Georgia and Alabama.
In 2005, a wand was waved and another wish came true: Danielle (right), was princess for a day – complete with gown, cape, scepter, crown and castle. Midtown’s Rhodes Hall became her castle, and a proclamation was read declaring the little girl ruler of the Land of Elleinad (Danielle spelled backward).
Atlanta’s Make-A-Wish chapter now has its sights set on fulfilling wish No. 6,000, which should happen sometime next year.
Founded in 1980, the national organization grants the wishes of children with life-threatening medical conditions; it’s generally a medical professional who refers a child to Make-A-Wish. The goal is to bring hope, strength and joy to children who have endured great pain and suffering. According to a 2011 national study on “wish impact,” a majority of health professionals surveyed said they believe the group’s efforts have had a positive impact on these children. The kids themselves reported that fulfillment of their wishes gave them renewed strength to fight their illnesses and diseases, which range from cancer and sickle cell disease to fatal heart conditions. Their parents – so many of them financially and emotionally drained from long and overwhelming medical ordeals – say Make-A-Wish experiences helped rejuvenate and strengthen their families.
Jennifer DeShetler of Atlanta still has nightmares about what her little girl Audrey went through when she was 5 and 6. With a solid cancerous tumor growing throughout her body, Audrey, now 7, went through a long medical battle. Treatment included hospital stays in Atlanta, and also in Philadelphia for surgeries to remove chunks of tumor. At one point, Audrey was in isolation for three months. There were two agonizing days when her temperature shot up to 109. Doctors told Audrey’s parents “there was nothing else they could do,” recalls Jennifer, weeping at the memory.
The prospect of going to Hawaii with her family to romp in the beautiful water played no small role in the little girl pulling through, her mother believes. “We kept showing her pictures of Hawaii and talking about the plans,” Jennifer says. “I think that got her better, I really believe that. She had tremendous desire to leave the hospital and for all of us to go to Hawaii together.” Which the family did this past summer. To say a good time was had by all would be like saying sugar is only a little bit sweet.
“The impact goes well beyond just ‘nice,’ ”
says John J. Brennan, chief executive officer of the Make-A-Wish Georgia-Alabama chapter. “A wish come true often helps kids feel stronger, more energetic and positive, and better both emotionally and physically.” Brennan tosses out statistics: 89 percent of healthcare professionals report a child’s Make-A-Wish experience to be “the positive turning point in that child’s fight for his life,” while 98 percent of wish kids’ parents say that their Make-A-Wish experience “helped them as a family feel normal again.”
Says Brennan: “So many of the families we serve have spent months and years dealing with needle sticks, nausea, the loss of hair, treatments, surgeries. Many haven’t been able to just enjoy being a family together for a long time.”
With a $5 million annual budget that allows it to grant about 400 wishes each year, the Georgia-Alabama chapter is one of 63 Make-A-Wish chapters in the U.S.; there are also dozens of chapters around the world. Children’s wishes typically fall into one of four categories: to be (a police officer, for example); to meet (often a celebrity); to have (a puppy, a room re-do, etc.); or to go (Disney World and Hawaii are the top “destination” wishes). The average wish granted involves five family members and costs $8,000. In Atlanta, 83 percent of all money raised goes directly to wish granting.
Jon and Susan Been of Buckhead have chosen Make-A-Wish as a charity they enjoy supporting. In the past seven years, the Beens have sponsored 20 specific wishes – and now they involve their own children – Katherine, 12, and Wilson, 10. This year, Katherine chose for her family to help a local child get a treehouse built, while Wilson (a wrestling enthusiast), played a role in his parents sponsoring the wish of a local boy to go to WrestleMania and meet John Cera, a star in the sport.
Susan Been also formed a walk team for the Atlanta Make-A-Wish chapter’s annual “Walk for Wishes.” Katherine and Wilson both helped raise money for the team and participated, as did some of their friends.
“As parents, we feel it’s important to teach them philanthropy and the idea of giving back to their community,” says Susan Been. “Any time our children can be involved in helping other children, I think they better realize how lucky they are to be healthy.”
Families don’t need to sponsor a full wish. The organization gets no government support and relies fully on donations, support from foundations, and a small army of volunteers. “Wish Volunteers” make home visits to meet eligible children and their families. They report back to “wish coordinators” who get the wheels in motion. The volunteers continue to serve as a link between their wish families and the organization. Every wish is tailored to suit each individual wish child’s dreams, goals and personality – there’s no “cookie cutter” wish in the book.
“We’re always looking for more volunteers who can work directly with our wish families,” says Shavette Turner, vice president of program services for Atlanta’s Make-A-Wish chapter. She started out as a volunteer 14 years ago, when the Atlanta chapter was granting its 149th wish. And now, here they are, coming up on 6,000 wishes.
“We are able to bring a lot of joy and happiness to children and families who haven’t had much of that,” says Turner, who enjoys the process of brainstorming with staff and volunteers to help devise wishes that unfold in creative and unexpected ways. “To be able to get inside a child’s imagination and run with it – there’s no greater thing. I couldn’t imagine doing anything else with myself.”
There are many ways families can help Make-A-Wish dreams come true for Atlanta-area kids. You can contribute with travel needs, as well as items for gift baskets that MAW offers to children during the “wish presentation.” Here are some things you can donate:
To assist in any way, contact Kristin Kyle: 770-916-9474, ext. 10, or firstname.lastname@example.org
Here are just three metro kids who recently had their wishes granted. Their parents all told us that their family’s “wish” experiences were important turning points after tremendous medical ordeals.
Audrey DeShetler, 7, Atlanta
Wish Came True: Hawaii, July 2012
Two years ago, Benjamin and Jennifer DeShetler of Atlanta thought their 5-year-old daughter Audrey had gobbled up too much Halloween candy. They were just back from trick-or-treating and Audrey was complaining about leg and stomach pain. Then came a fever, and worse stomach pain. In less than two weeks, Audrey was diagnosed with neuroblastoma, a tumor impacting her nervous system.
Taking care of Audrey turned into a full-time job for Jennifer. Audrey’s long medical fight has included six rounds of chemo, hospitalization in Philadelphia, countless blood transfusions, and two touch-and-go stem cell transplants “when her skin melted,” recalls her mother, quietly. Audrey loves the water, but could not play in any water for almost two years because of a transfusion line inserted into her chest.
The prospect of her whole family going to Hawaii, thanks to Make-A-Wish, is something that motivated this little girl with a bubbly personality to fight for her life. Audrey’s parents believe that her will to fight was empowered by Hawaii on the horizon.
The DeShetlers went to Hawaii this past summer. They waited until Audrey, now in remission, could play in the water. Audrey did just that, from sunup until sundown, both in the crystal-blue ocean and in the spectacular Disney Resort pool. The DeShetlers say Make-A-Wish covered every detail. Audrey even had a private lesson with biologists and got to feed and play with stingrays. “In some ways, [Make-A-Wish] saved all of our lives,” says Jennifer. “I believe that.”
Audrey, now 7 and a happy first-grader with lots of friends, is currently “doing great,” says her mom. “Her hair grew back. It’s funny because her hair used to be straight, but when it grew back, it came in curly.”
Shuron Yelder, 16, Stone Mountain
Wish Came True: Hawaii, Sept. 2011
Shuron Yelder’s rare condition – abnormal absorption in the intestinal tract that robs her body of key nutrients – was not diagnosed until she was 12. For years, her parents thought signs such as puffy eyelids and cramping hands meant strange allergies. Shuron’s mom LaVerne feels like “it took 9 million doctors” before a proper diagnosis.
Shuron has endured countless tests and treatments over four years. She gets nightly infusions to replenish calcium, potassium and other nutrients that her body discards rather than absorbs. In a “heart to heart” talk, a doctor asked Shuron what might make her happy. The Tucker High junior said she just wanted to get “far, far away” from bone scans, MRIs, CAT scans, needles, lab work and hospitals. Her doctor replied: “I’ll see what I can do.”
Fiji was out – too far from medical attention. Shuron then pitched Hawaii as her wish, and her doctors said OK. Along with big sister LaTasha and parents, Shuron was whisked away to the big island of Kona last year.
“No way could we have afforded to do the trip,” LaVerne says. “It was Shuron’s wish trip and we followed her every step – we were just along for the ride.”
Because of the infusion line in her arm, Shuron couldn’t swim with the dolphins – but they swam all around her. The family visited a volcano and enjoyed lots of beach time and fresh seafood.
“It was time together with my family, just the four of us far away, which is just what I wanted,” Shuron recalls. She still looks at pictures every day. She hopes to one day qualify for a transplant of the intestines. “I like to stay positive because being negative is not going to make anything better.”
Adds her mom: “As many words as we can say are not enough to give back to Make-A-Wish. We are truly grateful.”
Matthew Schneider, 6, Marietta
Wish Came True: Disney World, March 2012
From age 2 to 5 ½, Matthew Schneider had regular chemotherapy treatments to fight acute lymphatic leukemia. “It’s not a normal childhood,” says Matthew’s mom, Holly Schneider. “We couldn’t travel much because you don’t want to go far away from your home-base hospital.”
Holly had to quit her job as a high school teacher. Tending to Matthew’s medical needs and another son two years older (who has ADHD, Asperger’s syndrome and dyslexia) became round-the-clock concerns. For three-and-a-half years, every morning and night, she administered drugs to Matthew.
“God has been developing patience and love in our hearts,” she says. “I’ve done my fair share of complaining, but we were the parents God chose for these boys – who are lovely children with big hearts. We will do all we can to give them the fair share in life they so deserve.”
One day, amid Matthew’s final chemotherapy treatments, a nurse announced: “Wait a minute, you never made a wish!” Next thing they knew, Matthew was wishing to ride a steam-engine train, and big brother Michael was shouting: “At Disney!” Make-A-Wish made it happen.
The Schneiders were treated like royalty on a spring-break week in Orlando this year. They had “amazing” days at SeaWorld, Disney Hollywood, Epcot, Legoland and more. They stayed in Give Kids the World Village, a 70-acre “storybook resort” exclusively for kids with life-threatening conditions and their families.
Make-A-Wish strives to tend to every detail. When the Schneiders were about to board the steam engine ride in Disney’s Magic Kingdom, Matthew and Michael were escorted to the conductor’s car so they could be the ones to announce “All aboard!” It’s not a moment this family will forget.
“You would not believe the kindness, the generosity and the wonderful volunteers at Give Kids the World [gktw.org] and everywhere we went,” Holly says. “It was all so heartwarming. And it made a strong impression on our kids because now they want to give back. What they have been through has shown them how nice it is to give.”