One Wish at a Time

Make-A-Wish Ohio, Kentucky & Indiana Makes Lasting Impacts

Writer / Grace Schaefer
Photography Provided

Stephanie McCormick and her team have a very special job – they’re professional wish granters.

Their history goes back to 1980, when Christopher James Greicius, a 7-year-old boy with leukemia, wished to be an Arizona highway patrol motorcycle cop. When a group of Phoenix-based police officers made that wish a reality – making Christopher their only sworn-in honorary member – no one could have guessed just how much good would follow.

Christopher’s mother, Linda Pauling, saw just how important that experience was, and knew that the impact could last far beyond a single wish. With a group of friends, she started a checking account to fund the fulfillment of wishes like her son’s, and the Make-A-Wish Foundation was born. For such a successful and expansive nonprofit, it’s still relatively young. In fact, in a little over 40 years, the foundation has created 59 national chapters and has over 40 international affiliates.   

This year marks the 40th anniversary of the Make-A-Wish Ohio, Kentucky & Indiana chapter, as well as its 20,000th wish. It is the foundation’s largest chapter, serving 300 counties across three states. Stephanie McCormick is the chapter’s chief executive officer. Despite the large scale, McCormick and her team stay true to the very first wish, just like the parent foundation. “We have a very simple vision,” she says. “We grant wishes for children with life-threatening critical illnesses. It’s pretty phenomenal what a wish can do.”

But what is the true work of Make-A-Wish? Simply put, the team uses funding to create a bright spot in a child’s – and family’s – journey through serious illness. From a road trip to starting a YouTube channel, from getting a puppy to giving to the community,

Make-A-Wish makes a child’s dream come true at the crucial time when it seems least likely.

And it’s not just a moment of happiness. Statistically, Make-A-Wish children see improvements in emotional well-being and treatment compliance, and 80% say their wish helped them fight their illness. With the local chapter planning to grant 1,200 of these life-changing wishes in fiscal year 2023, McCormick emphasizes that the nonprofit’s criteria for wish-eligible children has changed drastically since its inception. Wishes are not only granted for children who are terminally ill. “It’s for children with critical, life-threatening illnesses,” she says. “[There are] 200-plus qualifying conditions that fall under eligibility for a wish.”

And with 14 children’s hospitals providing referrals, Make-A-Wish Ohio, Kentucky & Indiana aims to reach every child in need. “That’s what we do,” McCormick says. “We are trying to keep it very basic and simple, even though granting a wish is incredibly complex.”

To McCormick, the most important aspect of the foundation is the impact of a wish. “There’s nothing more powerful than the smile of a wish child,” she says. “It’s life transformational, not only for them, but for the family, the wish-granting volunteer and the community. The transformation that I have seen in children and their communities and their families has been incredible. This has been life transformational for me.”

“Usually I get asked, ‘What was your favorite wish?’” McCormick adds. “I always say, ‘The next one, and the next one, and the next one.’”

But this kindhearted CEO can’t deny the special impact of a particular wish, and in the case of Nadene, a young woman in Indiana, that impact doesn’t end with the wish child.

“Sometimes kids say, ‘You know, I don’t need a wish,’ or parents say, ‘We don’t need a wish.’” McCormick says. “They think that they can afford to do this or to do that on their own, [but] it has nothing to do with money. This has everything to do with the journey and the experience, so we focus on the experience. It has nothing to do with how much money you make or don’t make. We make the magic.”

Still, Nadene turned down the opportunity three times before, at the age of 16, she made her decision. “Her wish was to have built, at Indiana Dunes, a boardwalk that goes all the way to the water’s edge, so that people with disabilities that are in wheelchairs or have a difficult time walking can go put their toes in the water,” McCormick says.

The chapter began work on Nadene’s wish last June. “The community came together in such a huge way that [Make-A-Wish] built the first section of the boardwalk, and the community, in two weeks’ time, raised an additional $100,000 when they heard about her wish, to build the next section,” McCormick says. “They’re going to continue to do that every year until it covers the entire front of the state park. That’s the power of a wish.”

But the power didn’t stop there. A mother who attended the ribbon-cutting ceremony brought her 33-year-old, noncommunicative, wheelchair-bound son to the beach every day during the summer. She brings him to the beach and down to the dunes every day because it makes him smile, but he’s never been able to go down to the water.

When the mother found out about the boardwalk she began to cry, realizing it would be the first time he would be able to put his feet in the water. Even though he was too old to go through the Make-A-Wish program, one selfless wish fulfilled his, and his mother’s, dream. “Now you tell me what kind of power that has,” McCormick says.

Certainly there is great power in a wish fulfilled, not just for the child, but also for anyone and everyone around them – even, in Nadene’s case, fulfilling the wish of another. “That’s what it’s all about,” McCormick says. “It’s the wish that keeps on giving.”

The power of the wish isn’t unique to the Make-A-Wish staff. “We’re always looking for great volunteer wish granters,” McCormick says. “We’re looking for board members. We’re looking for committee members. We have a young leaders board. We’re always looking for great young leaders who want to get involved in philanthropy.”

Whether donating funds, goods, airline miles, hotel points, vehicles, or taking the time to fulfill a wish as a volunteer, there is an avenue for anyone interested, and any contribution is welcome. “There’s nothing more powerful than the smile of a wish child,” McCormick says. “It is life transformational, so I would ask everyone to join us in that magic.”

Make-A-Wish Ohio, Kentucky & Indiana certainly seems to have a bit of magic, and it’s not the sort of magic to disappear at the end of the day. The work continues, and each wish granted might be the fulfillment of yet another – compounding wishes, like Nadene’s boardwalk. Since that first wish in Phoenix back in 1980, these magic makers have been continuing their wonderful work without the slightest sign of stopping, and here in Kentucky it seems that the story is set to continue, with the focus always on one smile, one moment, one child.

One wish at a time.

To learn more about the Make-A-Wish Ohio, Kentucky & Indiana chapter, including how to refer a child and how to get involved, visit oki.wish.org.

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