Daring to Dream

The Dream Factory Helps Wishes Come True for Chronically and Critically Ill Children

Writer / Julie Yates
Photography Provided

Childhood and adolescence are typically characterized as a carefree and fun-filled periods of life. They are thought of as times of self-discovery, as endless possibilities are experienced without the weight of a lot of responsibility. Most parents can enjoy watching their children unfold their wings and fly into the world with only minor stumbling. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case for families with a critically or chronically ill child.   

The lives of families with a child experiencing an advanced or chronic disease are hampered by the demands of hospital stays, and scheduled doctor or treatment appointments. For them, worry is a constant theme. The Dream Factory, a national wish-fulfillment organization, has a mission to enable such children, aged 3 to 18, to briefly set aside these struggles.

The Dream Factory has over 30 chapters across 16 states, and is the largest all-volunteer organization of its kind. Founded in Hopkinsville, Kentucky, in 1980, its headquarters are in Louisville. With only three full-time positions and one part-time paid position, 95% of the money it raises goes directly to its mission. This has enabled the organization to earn Charity Navigator’s highest rating of four stars for the past nine years.

Besides being staffed almost entirely by volunteers, The Dream Factory has another aspect that sets it apart. As with other wish-fulfillment organizations, it allows recipients to have a family vacation, attend an event or meet someone special. However, it aims to provide these memory-making experiences not only for children nearing the end of life, but also for those with serious and chronic illnesses that have interfered with their childhood.

“We are like other similar organizations in that we all want to provide a brief time of relief from worry, and put smiles on the faces of a child and the family,” says Mike McKenzie, chief executive officer and national director. “Except in our case, the illness doesn’t have to be life threatening. We provide dreams for children with serious chronic conditions such as spina bifida, cerebral palsy, active sickle cell anemia and Down syndrome, and individuals with heart or pulmonary issues. We don’t use the word ‘terminal.’ We don’t want a child to hear the word used when discussing their eligibility and ask what it means.”

In fact, some dream recipients have grown into adulthood and are living fruitful lives. McKenzie recounts the story of a teenage girl whose dream was a one-on-one meeting with the Pope. Today she is married and has children. The impact of the organization can never be fully measured, but it is clear the experiences granted make a lasting difference.

Children with chronic illness battle stress and depression. In addition, they may also suffer from post-traumatic stress syndrome. Two studies in recent years have yielded results that suggest a fulfilled wish can improve an ill youngster’s quality of life. A 2015 study in Israel reported that increased positive emotions generated through participating in dream programs fostered an increased sense of well-being. More recently, a 2018 study conducted at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, concluded that patients who were granted a wish were more likely to have fewer unplanned hospital and emergency-department visits.

The Dream Factory can be part of the team helping the family through an illness journey, but out of respect for privacy, a patient is never recruited. Parents, guardians, physicians, and children with advanced documented diseases can make referrals to begin the dream-granting process. There is no regard given to race, color, creed, religion, ethnic origin or economic status, but the child must reside in a community where a chapter exists.

“Chapters build relationships with local hospitals,” says McKenzie. “Typically, a child-life specialist or treatment plan coordinator is assigned to families. This person becomes a point of contact. Social media posts made by family members also raise awareness of our organization and increase referrals after being viewed by those experiencing similar situations.”

“When the referrals come into the local chapters, members ask themselves, ‘How can we figure out a way to make this happen?’” he continues. “Sometimes it must be a second choice. The hardest is how we can make it happen in three to four weeks if that is all the time a child has. What drives us is that we know the wish will make lasting memories for the rest of the family.”

McKenzie shares that the types of dreams provided are varied. Not everyone asks for a trip such as a stay in Disney World. Some children wish for shopping sprees, gaming consoles or concert tickets. During COVID, “she sheds” were built or campers were requested for family getaways. Compromised immune systems must be kept in mind when considering dream options.

“One of the most heart-tugging dreams was given to a child at the Kentucky Children’s Hospital affiliated with the University of Kentucky in Lexington,” says McKenzie. “His mother and father were from Africa and when their visa expired, they had to return to Africa. His wish was to get back to Africa so he could spend his final days with his family.”

“There are lots of good people in the world,” he adds. “Volunteers sometimes fund dreams out of their own pockets. Fundraising depends on local communities. In Louisville there is a black-tie gala. In rural areas it might be a tractor pull. There are golf scrambles and trivia nights, and in Memphis wet-suited individuals water ski at the annual New Year’s Day Ski Freeze. We accept donations on our website as well.”

The Dream Factory is fortunate to have several national partners who believe in and support their mission. These businesses and organizations facilitate dreams. Among them are American Airlines, Atlantis, Holiday Inn and Southwest Airlines. Foundations represented include Sunshine Foundation, Something mAAgic Foundation, and Samtec Cares.

McKenzie, who was an educator and high school principal before retiring, would like to see the organization grow. He urges any community wanting to start a local chapter to reach out his national office and start a conversation. He feels there is no shortage of children who could qualify and benefit from having a dream fulfilled. There is plenty of room at the table for anyone who wants to make a difference in a gravely ill child’s life by volunteering or initiating a new chapter.

“My wife and I began volunteering for the Lexington chapter,” says McKenzie. “We just felt in our hearts and minds the urge to help sick kids and put a smile on their face. After I retired from education about five years ago, this opportunity to take a national leadership role came up. I can’t think of a greater way to write the last chapter of my work life than this. I firmly believe that each and every dream makes a difference. For perhaps a week, a family doesn’t have to worry about doctor appointments, shots or chemotherapy. A child gets to be normal for a week. That’s what every parent wants.”

For more information on The Dream factory including volunteering, finding a local chapter and donations, visit dreamfactoryinc.org. The national office is located at 410 West Chestnut Street, Suite 530 in Louisville. Call them at 502-561-3001.

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