Make-A-Wish of Greater Pennsylvania & West Virginia

I shared a little bit of my brother’s story when I did the profile on Ronald McDonald House Charities of Pittsburgh last month.  His fight with cancer also put us in the position to experience, first hand, how the Make-A-Wish organization works.

When we were first approached by a hospital social worker about the prospect of working with Make-A-Wish, we were shocked.  We were under the impression that Make-A-Wish only worked with children who were considered terminal, and while we knew that Chris’s cancer diagnosis was very serious, were were absolutely not ready to believe that it might be terminal.  Apparently this is one of the greatest misconceptions about the work that Make-A-Wish does.

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While all Make-A-Wish recipients need to be between the ages of 2-18, and need to have been diagnosed with a life-threatening medical condition, I was thrilled to learn that many beneficiaries go on to live full lives after gaining victory over their illnesses.  In fact, Make-A-Wish relies on the public to refer potential gift recipients to the program.  After communicating with the family, the organization will then look to verify the child’s eligibility through his or her physician.

My brother, like about half of the gift recipients, chose to go to Walk Disney World.  And while this trip is far and away the most popular choice for kids (Make-A-Wish and Disney have teamed up to make the trip extra-special for the kids and their families) there really are very few limits to what is possible for these kids’ special wishes.  Basically the options are broken down into five categories:

  1. I wish to go to…
  2. I wish to be…
  3. I wish to meet…
  4. I wish to have…
  5. I wish to give…

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Our local chapter, headquartered here in Pittsburgh, serves almost all of Pennsylvania and all of West Virginia.  They are quite busy.  Last year they fulfilled over 700 wishes, making them the first Make-A-Wish chapter in the world to cross that threshold. Since the chapter started up in Pittsburgh in 1983, they have fulfilled over 18,000 wishes.

Take a moment to stop and consider that number.  18,000 children, most whom were intimately acquainted with the inside of a hospital room and all the uncertainty that comes along with it.  18,000 kids whose little bodies had betrayed them in some way, shape, or form.  18,000 families who worried, prayed, and struggled, not knowing what the future would hold for their babies.  These 18,000 made a wish and had it granted.  They got to do something special. Something important. Something that allowed them and their families the opportunity to focus on something other than disease and doctors for a little while.  When medical treatment and crises have been your whole world, this sort of brief escape from reality is invaluable.

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How Can You Help?

Make-A-Wish does not receive any government funding or grants. This means they are fully dependent on private donations for the wishes that they are able to grant. Foundations and organizations do donate, but it’s still individuals who make up the largest percentage of the donations to Make-A-Wish. And, while 86% of your gift goes directly to wish-granting (it should go without saying that marketing and administrative fees are still very important), the organization even gives you the option to request that 100% of your donation goes to that end.  Beyond this, all donations remain with the local chapter. Your money will directly benefit local kids.

Make-A-Wish also has some really amazing ways to use volunteers. After some training, a volunteer can become part of a wish-granting team. These volunteers meet with families to help the ill child determine what wish will be best for him or her. After this, the volunteer continues to act as a liaison between the family and the organization throughout the process, helping to make things special for the wish child at every step along the way.

But the opportunities to help don’t end there. I’ll direct you to the chapter’s volunteer page where you can learn about a half-dozen more ways to contribute to the mission of granting wishes for kids with life-threatening illnesses.

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Wrapping it up

Since my brother did want to go to Disney Wold and enjoy the tip to it’s absolute fullest (something he tried to do with everything), he waited to take us along until his cancer was in remission (about 15 months after his initial diagnosis). He completed two major surgeries, a few rounds of chemotherapy, and ten weeks of daily radiation. By Thanksgiving of 1999 he was behaving like a normal teenager again, so that’s when we spent a fantastic week racing through the parks. Unfortunately Chris’s story wasn’t one with a happy ending.  His cancer ended up coming back and taking his life on Thanksgiving Day the following year.  But that week in Disney a year earlier was pure joy. And our memories of that week are still strong, and happy. We are truly grateful for that time we had together.

I’m sure other families have equally significant and memorable stories. In fact, I imagine there are 18,000 of them from out of the Greater Pennsylvania and West Virginia offices. I’m grateful that we have Make-A-Wish here to serve local children. They truly are a group that Betters the ‘Burgh.