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  • Jodi Blake

Working in the Wish-Granting World

Boy looking down into an open red gift box with white light coming from inside

Imagine being tasked with fulfilling real wishes as your job assignment. Not a typical job responsibility, unless you’re in the fairy godmother or genie business, you own a field of dandelions, or you manufacture birthday candles.


There is another possibility: work as a Wish Coordinator for the Make-A-Wish Foundation, a charitable organization that grants wishes to children with critical illnesses, helping them respond more positively, both physically and emotionally, to their treatments.


The foundation follows this mission: Together, we create life-changing wishes for children with critical illnesses.  

As the foundation explains and the reason health professionals incorporate a wish into a child’s treatment plan:


Wishes are an important part of a child’s health care journey. Wishes can help children feel better and give them the hope and strength they need to fight – and even overcome – a critical illness.

I recently talked with Adena Ruckoldt, a young woman I first met when she was a teenager in Girl Scouts, and she and my daughter became friends when they were both program aide volunteers for weekend troop outings at a nearby camp.

Profile photo of Adena Ruckoldt

Adena now works as one of the Wish Coordinators for the Make-A-Wish Wisconsin chapter in Wauwatosa, a Milwaukee suburb. With input from the child and his/her family, she designs the wish experience and then organizes the behind-the-scenes logistics to enable the granting of a variety of wishes.


The types of wishes can vary from trips to Disney World, the ocean, or a dinosaur park to being a chef or veterinarian, having a big birthday celebration, or receiving a kitten, a new computer, or a backyard makeover so the family can enjoy time together.


Wish-Granting Process 

Referring a Child 

The wish-granting process starts with referring children to the foundation. Parents or legal guardians, health professionals, or family members with detailed knowledge of the child’s current medical condition can submit a referral.


The following eligibility requirements must be met at the time of referral for the children to participate with the foundation:

  • Diagnosed with a critical illness (a progressive, degenerative or malignant condition) that is placing the child’s life in jeopardy 

  • Be older than 2.5 years and younger than 18 (at the time of referral) 

  • Has not received a wish from another wish-granting organization 


Check out the Make-A-Wish site for more referral process information.


Brainstorming Wish Ideas 

Wishes are granted at the state or regional chapter level, and the process steps may vary between locations. At the Wisconsin chapter, Adena explains that a Wish Granter, a volunteer role, meets with the child, parents/legal guardians, and/or family members to brainstorm ideas for the wish.

 

Two children and a father wearing swim masks underwater amidst a school of orange fish

There are four categories or themes of wishes:  

  • To have (for example, a bike, a computer, a dog, a celebration) 

  • To be (for example, a pilot, a zookeeper) 

  • To go (for example, to a sports event, on a cruise trip, to an amusement park) 

  • To meet (for example, a celebrity, a YouTuber, a streamer) 


All members of the wish child’s immediate family take part in the wish whenever possible, and wish expenses are fully covered by Make-A-Wish, giving the wish child and family a respite from the stress of dealing with a critical illness.


Notes from the brainstorming session are passed on to the Wish Coordinator to further design the wish experience.


Designing the Wish 

Managing around 75-80 cases in various stages of planning, Adena focuses on converting the ideas and notes into a final wish. Often, she works with other chapters if an experience would be in their geographical area and with established vendors who provide services for frequently requested wishes.


For example, for a wish to go to Disney World, Adena can work with the Give Kids the World Village non-profit resort in Kissimmee, Florida, that provides weeklong, cost-free vacations. She also books flights, arranges for ground transportation, purchases tickets to Disney World and other area attractions, and rents needed medical equipment. Finally, she ensures all paperwork is completed and signed by all parties before the scheduled date of the wish experience.


Some wishes are more unique or one of a kind, so the design phase can be more creative. Adena says designing these wishes is her favorite part of the job. “I usually get to know the family better,” she says – an added benefit.

Adena designed one such creative wish that was granted a couple months ago for 18-year-old Lulu Altman, who was diagnosed when she was 10 with an autoimmune disorder that kept her blood from clotting and then a few years later received a diagnosis of lupus.


Lulu Altman singing on stage with the Milwaukee Youth Symphony Orchestra

Lulu has a lifelong passion for music and singing, and her dream was to sing with a full orchestra. In February, Lulu selected four poignant songs that represented her medical journey and performed them in a concert with the Milwaukee Youth Symphony Orchestra. She received a standing ovation afterwards. Adena sought out a local orchestra and arranged for Lulu to rehearse with the artistic director.


To make this wish even more special, it was the 8,000th wish granted by the Wisconsin chapter in their 40-year history in the state. (Check out this moving news feature video and this human interest story about Lulu’s wish.) 

There are some parts of the Wish Coordinator job that aren’t always as fun. Sometimes there are rush wishes for children with critical medical situations with short time frames to grant them. She may not have an opportunity to get to know the child well and may work more with the parents. Even if a child dies, Adena says she and the staff can take some solace. “We know we granted their wish.”


Another challenging aspect can be managing the child’s/family’s expectations and dynamics between family members. These factors can sometimes affect what can and cannot be designed for the wish.


A wish for an Amazing Race competition that will take place in early June, Adena had to manage the scope of the event since it’s not possible to travel to different countries or have a celebrity host. The wish recipient and the family also hope the wish will be viral and focus on being resilient. With these ideas, Adena found a local events group to work with to set up a race competition around Milwaukee for 10 two-person teams. Another challenge is finding the team participants (8th-12th graders) who have a personal resilience story. She is contacting local high schools, the medical team, and the foster care case worker for possible participant leads.


Presenting the Wish 

After Adena designs a child’s wish, the Wish Granter usually gets involved to present the wish to the child and his/her family. Sometimes, Adena gets to help with the presentation of the wish like last weekend when she attended a Pokémon party at the zoo. To facilitate a Pokémon character hunt, Adena recruited several volunteers to be stationed throughout the grounds with stickers that “matched” the zoo animals. The wish recipient and guests searched for the stickers before the party moved to the loft above the elephant exhibit for cake and refreshments.


“[The party] was absolutely awesome! The weather was beautiful. The kids loved hunting for stickers, but so did the adults! [Even] a little old lady in a walker was so excited that she collected 14 of 18 stickers,” Adena said.


More About the Make-A-Wish Foundation 

The creation of the Make-A-Wish Foundation was inspired by the granting of a wish in 1980 to a 7-year-old boy, Chris Greicius, who was battling leukemia. He wanted to be a police officer, so his Phoenix community arranged that wish for him. The following year, the first official wish from the foundation was granted to another 7-year-old boy battling leukemia, Frank “Bopsy” Salazar. He wanted to be a fire fighter, and the Phoenix Fire Department stepped up to grant his wish.


Following publicity from Bopsy’s wish, several Make-A-Wish chapters started to form around the U.S., and in 1993 Make-A-Wish International was formed. Currently, there are chapters and affiliates covering every U.S. state and territory as well as nearly 50 countries on five continents.


When children are battling a critical illness, so much of normal childhood is taken away from them -- it is exhausting, both emotionally and physically. A wish is something that gives kids the opportunity to look outside their lives -- it restores a sense of childhood back to the child and normalcy back to the family.

Over the years, the foundation staff, volunteers, health professionals, families, and children have witnessed anecdotal evidence about the impact or “transformational power” of a wish. Research is beginning to quantify the possible medical and financial benefits of granting wishes. You can learn more about two studies: Dr. Anup Patel Wish Impact Study (U.S.) and the Israel Impact Study.


Young girl seated in a chair while holding a teddy bear to her face

According to the Make-A-Wish site: 

  • 585,000+ wishes granted worldwide 

  • 27,000+ wish-granting volunteers  

  • 99% of doctors say wishes help to relieve a family from traumatic stress and 98% of medical professionals say the wish experience has a positive impact on a child’s physical well-being 

  • 87% of alumni say their wish was a turning point in their treatment and 95% say the wish helped them overcome feelings of sadness 


Supporting the Make-A-Wish Mission 

If you would like to support the Make-A-Wish Foundation, there are several opportunities: 

  • Donate or fundraise at the national, local or international level 

  • Check out WishMaker volunteer opportunities with the state/local chapter 

  • Refer a child 

  • If you received a wish as a child, become active in the Make-A-Wish Alumni Community 

 

 

 

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~ Heather M. and Jodi B.

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Guest
May 16

What a cool job! Loved reading about Lulu’s wish.—LB

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