Would you like to star in your own movie? Or meet NBA star Shaquille O’Neal?
Neither of these requests seem far fetched for the nine professionals and over 400 volunteers working at the Wish House on South Broadway in Tarrytown. The Wish House is home to the local chapter of Make-A-Wish Foundation, which serves children with life-threatening illnesses in eight New York counties including Westchester.
To help fulfill wishes like these, the local chapter is hoping to raise at least $100,000 at their Second Annual Walk for Wishes on Oct. 14 at Playland in Rye, according to President and CEO Thomas Conklin.
Top: Khadijah and her "Wish" to swim with the dolphins.
Last year, the group grossed $73,000 from 200 walkers who raised money. "We’re looking to better that," Conklin said. This year, the foundation is expecting at least 300 walkers.
If you thought the wishes cited at the beginning of this article were merely possibilities – think again. During a visit to the Wish House a couple weeks ago, 11-year-old Miles from Ossining confirmed his wish come true. "It’s a coincidence," Miles said. "[Shaq’s] son’s name is exactly my name." Miles and his family recently visited the 7-foot 1-inch basketball star during a six-day trip to Florida. He and his father, Derek, were at the Wish House to make arrangements for an upcoming Yankees game they planned to attend with other Wish families.
The entire office, which looks more like a home, is filled with photos of smiling children, including a boy petting a cheetah, another boy meeting actor Will Ferrell, and a girl enjoying her sweet 17 with West Point cadets. She was too sick to enjoy her sweet 16 birthday.
One child sent a humongous thank-you card to the staff for a trip to Ireland and another girl is seen hanging out with singer Beyonc?© Knowles. At the foundation’s gala in April, one of the Wish kids sang for the crowd – courtesy of the voice lessons the foundation paid for. And then there are pictures of a boy who starred in his own film, "The Silver Ranger," that premiered at the Paramount in Peekskill. After filming the movie at the Wish House, he received a red-carpet welcome from the Marriott Hotel in Tarrytown.
"The wishes are really unique to the child," said Allyson Curtis, development manager for the chapter. Common wishes have been trips to Disney World or a visit with President Bill Clinton and now President George W. Bush. Wishes are open to any child between 2-1/2 and 18 years old. The children refer themselves or they are referred by a family member, friend or doctor. Doctors must certify that the disease is life-threatening. After a child is referred, volunteers meet with the family and ask the child who’d they like to meet, where they’d like to visit, what they’d like to do, or what they’d like to own.
"One of the biggest misconceptions is that it’s solely for children with terminal illness," Curtis said. That used to be their mission, she explained, but now the wishes are for children who have any life-threatening illness with the hope of surviving it. Many Wish kids have cancer or a heart condition.
And several of the children who survived their illnesses have formed a Wish alumni association. In fact, the Wish House has one full-time staffer who is a former Wish kid. Abe Almanza, who works full-time coordinating the volunteers, was diagnosed with lung cancer in 1998 at age 15. On his way to school, he and his father were in a car accident and Almanza suffered a lower back injury. During routine X-rays from the injury, doctors discovered stage 4 cancer in his lungs. Currently, he still suffers some lower back pain, but doctors told him the car accident saved his life. "I’ll take that over being six-feet under," said Almanza, who was cured from the disease in 2002.
In 1999, one year after his diagnosis, Almanza and his family went on a Fourth of July cruise on the Queen Elizabeth II ship in the Caribbean. "I was picked up by a limousine," Almanza said. "We didn’t pay for anything." During the interview with Almanza, he expressed passion for the organization and a kinship with the children he currently helps. About a year ago, he joined the alumni association, then began giving speeches, and was hired in July. He said that all Wish kids feel that someone else deserves the wish more than they do. Many of the children turn it down at first because they’d prefer to give it to a child who is sicker or in more need – even though financial need isn’t a part of the equation. In Almanza’s case, he was certain that his family was suffering more than he was, and he realized that it was more a gift to them. "It was not a vacation," he said. "It was really reconnecting together again as a family."
This is precisely Conklin’s mission as CEO. "At a time when a family is going through all sorts of stress and turmoil‚… now you change the conversation. Now they are looking at things that are fun and exciting. Now the family gets to talk about other things." Conklin said the Wish House becomes an "oasis amid a very trying time in their lives." The average cost of a wish is $7,000. Right now, the foundation is working to coordinate more than 130 wishes, and have completed their 1,500th wish since the chapter formed in 1986. The chapter started in Mt. Kisco and moved to Tarrytown six years ago.
The 2-1/2 mile walk on Oct. 14 is for all ages. The minimum donation for adults is $25 and children under age 13 are asked to give at least $20. Walkers are encouraged to raise money or form teams with their friends, family, neighbors, or coworkers. And businesses can sponsor the event. There will also be refreshments and entertainment. To learn more about the upcoming walk, visit hudson.wish.org or call 914-478-9474.