A Wish Come True Celebrates 40 Years of Granting Wishes to Local Children with Life Threatening Illnesses
Rhode Island’s oldest wish-granting organization will hold a 40th anniversary fundraising gala at WaterFire Arts Center on October 8.
A Wish Come True — a Warwick-based non-profit organization devoted to helping children with life threatening illnesses (and their families) across Rhode Island and southeastern Massachusetts — has a lot to celebrate in its fortieth year. Since its founding in 1982, the agency has raised more than $8.2 million and granted more than 1,700 wishes. What started as a twelve-wishes-a-year operation has grown to a thirty-wishes-per-year average. And in the past three years alone, it has expanded its reach to not only granting wishes, but to also providing resources to the families.
A Wish Come True’s [AWCT] executive director, Mary-Kate O’Leary, says Rhode Island and Massachusetts oldest wish granting organization has come a long way since its inception.
“When we started in the eighties and the nineties, it was really about granting a final wish,” she says, “Most of those kids were terminal cancer patients. What we find today is that almost 60 percent of the kids we work with have other illnesses outside of cancer.”
In other words, a child does not have to be terminal to benefit from AWCT’s services. Any child between the age of three and eighteen with a life-threatening illness, as determined by their physician, is qualified. From there, the agency follows guidelines and works closely with the child’s physician to determine the safest and most appropriate way to grant the child’s wish. For example, if travel is involved, the doctor must sign off on their ability to travel.
“80 percent of kids want to go down to Disney World in Florida,” says AWCT board member, Kristin Lessard. “When we grant this wish, the whole family gets to go and they get three days at Disney World, two days at Universal and one day at Sea World. They get a special pass that allows them to cut to front of all the lines. They really get to experience everything.”
While visiting the parks, the children and their families are also afforded a luxury stay at Give Kids the World, a resort created and set up specifically for children with life-threatening illnesses. Lessard participated in a volunteer trip last march and had the opportunity to tour to the facility and speak with the director in charge.
“The resort has beautiful little villas that they stay in and it’s kind of a theme park within itself, with rides and a beautiful pool. The families don’t pay anything, and they are treated like royalty the entire time. It is a wonderful place,” she says.
Lessard, who works for IHeart Media as a B101 morning show host and the host of their weekend public affairs show, first joined the AWCT Board in July 2021.
“I’ve interviewed many people from various charities around Rhode Island and southeastern Massachusetts, so I interviewed Mary-Kate quite a few times for the program. We got to know each other and then she asked if I would like to be involved and I said yes. It’s really a wonderful experience. and one thing that struck me is just how appreciative the children and the families are.”
While the trip to Florida is an amazing gift, it’s not the only wish on the table. Past wish recipients have also met celebrities and professional athletes, gone on shopping sprees and cruises, and visited different areas of the country. Each wish typically costs between $5,000 and $7,000, depending on the wish itself, the size of the family, and any special medical needs. However, with inflation today the wish costs closer to $7,500. All wish expenses, including travel accommodations and spending, money, are covered by A Wish Come True. A family’s income is never a factor in determining whether a child is eligible for a wish, but the family itself is always a consideration in addition to, if not as much as, the wish itself.
“I have a personal connection,” says O’Leary. “My personal story is that I had a younger brother when I was eleven — he was seven and he had a rare form of leukemia. It’s 95 percent curable today. There were no wishes back then, but I certainly got the perspective of a family member. It really impacts the entire family. And so, when I started here, right before COVID hit, we started talking about doing more services for the family.”
The organization decided to dive deeper. Its mission statement now not only includes granting children’s wishes, but also providing their families with much-needed resources.
“When the family gets the original diagnosis, they’re going through this incredible painful journey. They’re back and forth to doctors’ appointments. Often one parent has to quit their job to care for the child, which can lead to financial trouble. They don’t even know how to look up; their world as they know it has changed,” O’Leary says. “We want to be a support system for the family as they are going through this journey, and not just for the wish. The wish is the highlight of the journey and that’s a piece that we’ll always do, but we just felt that we could also more to meet the needs of the families.”
Since expanding its mission, AWCT has established the Meghan Duffy Hardship Fund which allows parents to apply for up to $1,500 a year. The fund helps with everything from rent and utility bills to car repairs and groceries.
“There was one family I shared with the board recently,” O’Leary says. “Their daughter had 398 chemo treatments —that’s 398 times that the family had to drive to and from Boston within a two-year period. That’s $20,000 in gas alone. There’s no one else who’s helping fund gas for these families.”
AWCT also provide other resources, including group support and opportunities for parents to care for themselves.
“As you can imagine, your own health is not the focus at all when you have a sick child, and so some of our parents a lot of times get run down and sick. We’re trying to do more than a Band-aid approach. We’re trying to help them help themselves and get back on track to where they need to be,” O’Leary explains.
Expanded resources and funding are not the only way the organization has evolved.
“Anybody can now call us and make a referral. It doesn’t have to be a doctor. So, if you know someone who has a life-threatening illness — not life altering illness, like diabetes — you can call us and make a referral.”
O’Leary is proud of how far they’ve come in the last few years.
“It’s been an amazing ride. We’ve been really growing and building and getting incredible board members who are really passionate people committed to making a difference,” she says. “And for us, it’s really all about having the children and their families become a part of the A Wish Come True family. They’re with us the long haul. It’s not just the wish and transactional. It’s more, ‘We’re here to be together and if you need anything, you call.’”
So, how can help? One way is through donations. You can donate to AWCT in person at their Warwick headquarters, over the phone by calling 401-781-9199, via email at email@example.com or through their website here.
“The best thing for us is to get people who can do recurring gifts. I think there’s a misnomer of everyone must give a $5,000 gift, but it’s really about the movement,” Lessard explains. “If you and your friends could do $20 a month, that is going to add up. If we can get more recurring gifts that’s always a big help.”
The organization also hosts a few fundraising events throughout the year, including various golf tournaments and a New Year’s Day polar plunge down in Newport. But their biggest event yet is coming up: A Wish Come True will celebrate forty years of wish granting with a grand gala and Wish family reunion at the Waterfire Arts Center during Columbus Day weekend.
The gala will take place Saturday, October 8, and is an adult-only, black-tie fundraiser that will feature dinner, dancing and a short program explaining AWCT’s mission. Providence College men’s basketball coach Ed Cooley will be the keynote speaker along with Steve Napolillo, the new Providence College athletic director, as auctioneer. The event runs from 6 to 11 p.m. You may purchase tickets for the gala here.
A Wish Family Reunion will take place the following day at the same venue from 1 to 3 p.m. This is a chance for those families who were helped by the organization to get together and celebrate. All past Wish Families are invited to attend, and all Wish Kids will have an amazing time.
Learn more about A Wish Come True and its mission at awish.org.