The depression and anxiety children feel when facing a critical illness takes its toll, and often these kids lose the joy of simply being a kid.
“Isolation and uncertainty can harm a child’s emotional well-being,” says Melissa Arias, president and CEO of Make-A-Wish Alaska and Washington. “Children who are fighting critical illnesses experience extreme emotional challenges every day.”
Research backs this up. A 2015 study focused on 66 children between the ages of 5 and 12 who had received a diagnosis of life-threatening cancer. Children in the Make-A-Wish group exhibited “a significant reduction in general distress, depression and anxiety symptoms, improved health-related quality of life, hope, and positive affect” while the control group displayed “no significant changes” in their mental and physical well-being.
A study done by Nationwide Children’s found patients who were granted a wish were more than twice as likely to have fewer unplanned hospital admissions and nearly twice as likely not to have to use the emergency department. This led to a decline in cost of care.
The research supports the idea that while wishes grant children the opportunity to live a “dream” – like a desire to be a police officer – it also helps them in other ways, distracting them from the daily grind of living with a chronic illness or providing incentive to continue with medical treatment, Arias adds.
Delivering hope, one wish at a time
The incentive of dreams became a reality for Chris, a 7-year-old boy battling leukemia. Chris had dreams of becoming a police officer, and his friends and family gave him his wish, working with local law enforcement to outfit the young boy in uniform and gave him honorary status as an officer with the Arizona Department of Public Safety.
Chris’ story was the impetus to establish Make-A-Wish, now a worldwide organization that operates in nearly 50 countries and has granted more than 500,000 wishes since Chris’ first in 1980.
Focusing on children who have been diagnosed with a critical illness, the Alaska and Washington chapter opened in 1986 and has delivered more than 7,700 wishes.
The local chapter has granted wishes to go fishing in Alaska, to meet the Seahawks, to have a shopping spree, to have a bedroom renovated, and has even transformed kids into superheroes.
“Given the collective stress and trauma that we’ve all experienced the past two years, there’s a renewed focus on mental health and the role it plays in overall well-being,” Arias says. “Society has a new appreciation for what it feels like to be scared, isolated and lose hope. These are experiences that our wish families know firsthand upon diagnosis.”
Impact of COVID-19
There doesn’t seem to be anything that wasn’t impacted by COVID and Make-A-Wish is no exception. With the onset of the pandemic, the charity had to make the difficult decision to put a pause on some wishes.
“COVID-19 has impacted all of us but wishes have been particularly hard hit,” Arias says. “A child’s safety is our No. 1 priority. Historically, 80% of the wishes we grant involve airline travel and large group gatherings,” but given that the children’s illnesses made them more vulnerable, the risk was too great. A shift to granting wishes that didn’t involve travel, like online shopping sprees or giving a child a puppy, became more commonplace.
Arias and her team also got creative, and one of her employees went the extra mile.
The child’s wish was to travel to Japan, which was out of the question as it was the peak of COVID. Instead, the child was treated to “an epic cultural immersion” in Seattle.
Working with the local community, the four-day adventure included everything from meeting anime artists and building a virtual world to visiting some of the area’s iconic historical and cultural Japanese destinations. When the day was done, the child returned to a hotel room decorated with his favorite anime series and a freezer stocked with treats he loves.
“He still talks about it today,” Arias says.
Arias says she draws inspiration daily from the work her affiliate does. Applauding the staff and volunteers who “show up in big ways and allow hope to prevail for wish kids,” helps her see a silver lining in these challenging times.
“Having a newfound empathy and appreciation certainly helps to showcase the importance and value that wishes play in total patient care for these kids and their families,” she says. “Where medicine treats the body, Make-A-Wish treats the mind, heart and soul.”
Make-A-Wish Alaska and Washington helps create life-changing wishes for children with critical illnesses during their darkest days. Whether you are an individual donor, corporate sponsor, fundraising advocate or volunteer, your generous support transforms lives, one wish at a time.