Last Friday was my last day at a phenomenal organization, where I’ve spent the last three and a half years helping grant wishes to children with life-threatening medical conditions. I showed up at this well-known non-profit fresh from the tech industry, searching for emotionally fulfilling work, a place to land where I might at last grow and develop my career in ways that seemed to elude me previously.
When I told my friends I had accepted an offer at Make-A-Wish, some of them raised an eyebrow in disbelief, and all of them expressed surprise. You see, before I walked through those doors I’d viewed children as an irritation, an ubiquitous and thus inescapable nuisance, my advocacy of the child-free lifestyle well-documented and expounded upon freely. So going to work for a children’s charity wasn’t exactly the next logical step for me. But it was the exact right one.
Assuming I’d seek out an agency or non-profit that served and advocated for women, I was matched with the CEO of Make-A-Wish who’d spent most of her previous career doing just that. A networking meeting became a job interview, during which I was asked by the chief development officer whether Make-A-Wish was my cause. I answered honestly, no. She snorted, saying, yeah, we’ll give that a week. They made an attractive offer, and I took it. And so, in my first week on the job, I was unsurprised when suddenly I was drunk on the kool-aid, so certain had the leadership been of its intoxicating powers.
Paging through one of our informational brochures, I was struck by the photo of a profoundly disabled three year-old girl wearing a massive grin almost as glittery as her tiara. This was Mikaela, one of our wish kids, who suffered from severe genetic abnormalities and wished for a princess party. The expression of delight on Miss Mikaela’s face radiated from the page, and her wheelchair and ventilator, at first so obvious, were diminished in comparison to her evident joy. This was the power of a wish. This was the point of a wish. To enrich the human experience with hope, strength and joy. To remind the child she was more than her diagnosis, treatment regimen, and medical equipment. To restore the joy of childhood to kids who need it most through a wish experience, as defined by them.
It was my cause, I just hadn’t realized it until that moment.
I met Garrett, who was on his way to his wish to go to Walt Disney World. A charming, out-going seven year-old, he pulled up his shirt to show me his “hood ornament”, a huge, three-point scar covering his stomach and chest that bore a resemblance to the Mercedes logo. He’d been through countless surgeries, but bounced around our office (affectionately called the Wish House), climbing inside the luggage set we’d given him and trying to zip himself inside.
And there was four year-old Ava, hair growing back in post-chemo, whose wish to meet a unicorn we’d recently granted, who came to the Wish House in full princess regalia to serve us doughnuts out of boxes she’d embellished with her art as a thank you.
Sixteen year-old Kenneth addressed crowds with the poise of a professional speaker. He made our donors cry with his story about wishing to take his family on a Caribbean cruise to thank them for supporting him through his cancer.
And Jazmin, a fifteen year-old girl battling stomach cancer with a prognosis of months, who we sent on her wish to meet the Pope in Rome. She decided she wanted to spend her foreseeable future volunteering with us, and showed up at the Wish House frequently until she felt like part of the staff.
We were granting more than 300 wishes to Arizona kids per year during my tenure, a wealth of captivating stories, each wish and child as unique as the one before. The wish experience was the discretion and vision of the child, to be defined by them and executed by us. Omar wished to hug a penguin. Logan wished for a playground in his neighborhood. McKenna wished to see whales. Jackie wished to see the Northern Lights. Sometimes I would walk through the office, observing my colleagues hard at work planning wishes and raising money and feel a sense of amazement we were pulling it off, that we represented such a powerful national (and international) brand. Hey, that old adage about a committed group of people is true. Indeed it is the only way anything gets done.
I rediscovered my heart for children through my work at Make-A-Wish, and that was an unexpected gift. When I was younger, children were my passion, my cause. An only child, I’d dedicated myself to the kids in my neighborhood, helping their parents care for them from the time I was eight years old. I would entertain toddlers while parents got stuff done around the house. I helped with bath time and read bedtime stories and patiently spooned food into tiny mouths, all the while longing for the day I would be old enough to babysit. Twelve turned out to be the magic age, and to prepare, I took a babysitting class at the children’s hospital, which I believed would enhance my qualifications. Babysitting was my life. I did it after school and on weekends and during school breaks. I had a regular roster of kids and a few one-offs here and there.
Caring for children, watching them grow, nurturing and spending time with them was what I knew I was born to do. I assumed I’d become a mother to my own children when the time was right, but exploring the idea in detail at age 20 I came up short. I didn’t want kids. Huh. And since no internal clock ever ticked, another 16 years have passed without the desire or impulse. But I didn’t need to go all the way into rejecting children themselves. That was immature and sad, and at odds with a fundamental part of my personhood. Make-A-Wish reminded me the value of children, how our futures are inextricably bound to them, how adults must work to ensure children become healthy well-adjusted adults so we have a shot at a decent society.
If Make-A-Wish connected me with my heart for children, it reanimated it, too. I remember telling my assistant not long after I started that I felt dead inside, and could really use a dose of the unfettered passion he clearly felt for our cause. I’d made progress on my journey back to feeling after years of numbing myself, but I still overused defenses like sarcasm, which betrayed my bitterness. Meeting wish parents my age dealing with critically-ill children brought me around. Oh. You don’t sneer at that struggle and go, oh isn’t that fun! because your derision has no place. You have to open your eyes and your heart and listen closely. You are there to grant a child’s one, true wish, and irony simply has no place. I learned how to speak in a new way. To give words to feelings. To hear a family’s story and let it penetrate me. To allow the high of a wish granted to move me to tears or stretch a massive grin across my face.
I’m different now.