The Make-A-Wish Foundation has granted the dreams of critically ill children for 41 years, giving them and their families a much-needed distraction from the day-to-day grind of medical appointments, treatments and caregiving.
But while military children with one of the foundation's qualifying conditions always have been eligible to request a wish, a new partnership and funding for the Washington, D.C., chapter aims to broaden availability to military families.
Defense contractor Amentum, headquartered in Germantown, Maryland, contributed $100,000 to Make-A-Wish Mid-Atlantic in March to fund wishes for military families over the next three years. The money will allow the organization to grant more wishes to military kids and fulfill them more quickly, explained Lesli Creedon, president and CEO of Make-A-Wish Mid-Atlantic.
Her organization receives roughly 450 referrals a year and grants around 300, including an average 20 per year to children whose parents or guardians are veterans or actively serving.
"You can see we have a pipeline of wishes and [kids] waiting, namely for financial reasons," Creedon said. "That's our big gap that we're trying to fill."
Being a mobile population, service members may not know their kids are eligible or even understand how to request a wish, according to Ron Hahn, a retired Marine officer who now serves as executive vice president of strategic growth at Amentum.
"Oftentimes, and I know from my 20-plus years in the Marine Corps, sometimes you just fall between the cracks. There are lots of [permanent change of station] moves and deployments, and there are benefits and things out there that aren't readily apparent," Hahn said.
Families who have a child with one of the many conditions that qualify someone for a wish can request one through the foundation’s website or often are nominated by their physicians, social workers or patient advocates.
Creedon said that while wishes appear to be simply a nice experience to give sick children and their families, the foundation believes they are necessary for overall mental and physical health.
For example, she explained, physicians say children often are more open to receiving their medical treatments both before and after receiving their wishes, and there is evidence they result in shorter hospital stays and fewer visits to the emergency room.
When one youngster received news that he was about to receive a new organ via transplant, his physicians called Make-A-Wish, saying they wanted him to go into the surgery "feeling as optimistic as he could."
"We had that family on a plane 48 hours later to Disney," Creedon said.
A study published in 2018 of patients at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, found that children who received a wish were 2.5 times more likely than those who did not to have a decline in unplanned hospital admissions in the year following their wish compared to the year before, and 1.9 times more likely to experience a drop in emergency room visits from the previous year.
More than 80% of all wishes received at the Mid-Atlantic chapter involve travel. But the foundation welcomes all types and enjoys the creative challenges of the more unique asks, according to Creedon.
For example, Liam Gallihue, an 18-year-old vocalist and composer from Havre de Grace, Maryland, who has cystic fibrosis, asked for a professional musical group -- an orchestra or band -- to record one of his compositions.
Gallihue said he didn't need to see it happen in person; he simply wanted a recording of the music to fill his wish.
This year, Wynton Marsalis and his Jazz at Lincoln Center orchestra will record Gallihue's work. And Make-A-Wish added on a music composition master class via Zoom with alto saxophonist Sherman Irby.
"Honestly, what they've done is way more than we expected to happen," said Gallihue, who will attend the University of Maryland this fall to study vocal performance. "I am so excited to see how [Jazz] interprets it."
"When Make-A-Wish called and said, 'Here's what we're gonna do,' I cried," added Liam's mother, Suzi Gallihue. "We've been isolated because of COVID. I had just had breast cancer and surgery. ... It gave us so much hope."
The coronavirus pandemic has slowed down the number of wishes that the Mid-Atlantic office has been able to grant in the past year, with many being delayed or changed as a result of travel restrictions, Creedon said.
A few children who had hoped to travel have decided to use their wishes for good: One young girl wanted to travel to London to do "everything Sherlock Holmes" but instead donated the money that would have funded the trip -- $5,000 -- to a therapeutic riding center in Great Falls, Virginia, according to Creedon, while another child gave wish money to renovate a city playground.
"There are a lot of children who [pay it forward]," she said.
Hahn said he has seen the impact that having a child with an illness or birth defects has had on friends and hopes his company can bring on partners to increase their philanthropy for Make-A-Wish.
"It's these little things that can bring relief, particularly on our enlisted side, who don't have the resources to do something like take a child to Disney or do whatever. To be able to apply our resources, our employees' resources, is a great thing," Hahn said.
Liam Gallihue said he never imagined requesting a wish, but after a particularly challenging 10th-grade year, during which he contracted a dangerous infection, he began considering it. He tells kids they should do it.
"It's such a unique, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. It can be hard to think about yourself, and ... it's like admitting that 'I'm really sick,' but it's such a great opportunity to do something you've always wanted to do or be someone you want to be. I can't recommend it enough."
-- Patricia Kime can be reached at Patricia.Kime@Monster.com. Follow her on Twitter @patriciakime.