For Gerry Birch, finding children that qualify for wishes in Arizona is easy. It’s making them all come true that’s tricky.
Birch is a Development Manager for Make-A-Wish Foundation of Arizona. From her office in Sedona, Birch tries to fulfill requests of deserving children from one end of Northern Arizona to the other.
Last year, the Arizona chapter granted nearly 40 wishes. That’s about double from the previous year. Nationally, the organization made 11,538 wishes come true in 2003. This year, the state chapter would like to be able to grant more than 200.
The caseload grew so heavy so quickly that the northern and central and southern Arizona chapters merged in Sept. 2004 to be able to grant more wishes. Before the merger, Birch had one full-time and one-part time person helping her cover the entire northern region.
To be able to reach more children and help keep administrative costs low, Make-A-Wish relies on volunteers. Currently, there are no volunteers in Winslow; however, last month Birch spoke at the Rotary Club meeting and received offers from three women interested in helping.
Volunteers serve in a variety of ways — wish granters, fundraisers, office aides — but all with the goal of making life easier for the wish child and the family.
“They’re going through something absolutely terrible, we don’t want to not be able to grant them a wish,” Birch said.
To date, three Winslow families have had wishes granted — all of them vacations. Usually, Birch asks local businesses to donate money to make the wishes come true. However, she didn’t have manpower to ask Winslow to help. With the cost of an average wish at $5,000 financial support is always needed.
“Certainly we’d like to put together some kind of fundraiser in Flagstaff because we have lots and lots of kids in Flagstaff, and the Navajo Reservation,” Birch said.
The foundation helps children between two-and-a-half and 18-years-old who suffer from a life-threatening medical condition. In addition to fundraising and staffing problems, Make-A-Wish struggles to shatter the myth that a child needs to be dying to be helped.
“When people think of Make-A-Wish, they think the child needs to be terminal,” Birch said. “That’s not true. When it was first formed almost 25 years ago, yes, that was the case, but I would say about eight years ago, Make-A-Wish Foundation and all 75 of its chapters sat down and hammered out a new mission. So many of our kids are not terminal.”
In the summer of 2001, Birch interviewed Michelle Thomas, who was 11-years old at the time. Thomas wanted to visit Ireland. Birch worked with chapters in Great Britain to make the wish happen.
“It was one of the most wonderful wishes I ever worked on,” she said.
And it almost didn’t happen. Karen, Michelle’s mother, said a social worker at the hospital where she was being treated suggested they call Make-A-Wish.
“We said, ‘No, we’re not giving up yet,’” Karen said.
After learning more about the organization, especially that it didn’t just help terminal patients, the Thomas family spent 10 days in the Emerald Isle.
For the wish kids and their families, the wish is sort of a reward for enduring the emotional, mental and physical stress of dealing with life-threatening conditions.
“I’ve seen children actually physically change,” Birch said. “I’ve had parents say to me, ‘they are so looking forward to this wish,’ It sort of gives them hope that they can through the chemotherapy or whatever they’re going through and the wish is going to happen for them.”
Wishes generally fall into four categories: a trip, meeting a celebrity, some type of new item like a computer or shopping spree, or wanting to be someone for a day like a model or conductor of a symphony. For younger kids, the most common wish is Disneyland or Disney World.
The organization rarely denies any wish. One exception is that Make-A-Wish won’t give children firearms or grant wishes that involve hunting. Birch said that if that is a child’s wish they work with another organization that will help out. Then Make-A-Wish grants the child’s second wish.
They also don’t grant wishes that involve giving a child a large animal, such as a horse, since caring for the animal could cause hardships for the family or creature. Nor do they grant motorized wishes because of liability.
But when they can grant a wish, Birch said it’s a wonderful feeling.
“The most wonderful experience is you really walk into a family that has been financially and emotionally devastated, and when you find out what the wish is and you work very hard to get the wish put together, it’s a gratifying feeling.” she said.
Please return to the News section to read the children's stories.