The Southern Florida chapter of the Make-a-Wish Foundation has granted more than 10,000 children wishes, making it one of the most successful chapters in the world.
By Michelle F. Solomon
Just this past May, Frank Shankwitz was one of 100 Americans who received the 2015 Ellis Island Medal of Honor. He stood alongside other 2015 recipients — including television host Meredith Viera, New York Yankees legend Mariano Rivera, Washington, D.C., Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier, and 11 members of the U.S. military. If their names are familiar and Shankwitz’s isn’t, when you hear the name of the charity he founded, that is what’s become a household name.
The Make-a-Wish Foundation grew out of the former Arizona highway patrol officer’s effort to grant the wish of a seven-year-old boy with leukemia, who wanted to be a highway patrol motorcycle officer. That was in 1980; the boy died a few days after receiving his wish, but the impact of how happy the simple act had made the child stuck with Shankwitz.
Since it started, Make-a-Wish has granted 350,000 wishes. In an interview about him receiving the Medal of Honor, Shankwitz told a reporter: “There’s a wish granted somewhere in the world every 26 minutes, all because of one little boy.”
The Make-a-Wish Southern Florida chapter is one of the most robust, granting a wish to children with life-threatening medical conditions every 16 hours. Since the inception of the chapter in 1983, more than 10,000 children in the area that Make-a-Wish serves have received wishes. The Southern Florida chapter covers 13 counties in Florida and also the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Norman Wedderburn, president and CEO of the Southern Florida chapter of the Make-a-Wish Foundation, says there are three requirements for a child to be eligible to have a wish granted.
“We determine a child’s medical eligibility with the help of a treating physician. To receive a wish, the child must be diagnosed with a life-threatening medical condition. Children, who have reached the age of 2½ and are under the age of 18 at the time of referral, may be eligible for a wish. The wish can take place after the 18th birthday, but the child needed to be referred prior to that date. And a child may not have received a wish from another wish-granting organization. After all this has been determined, we make it happen.”
And contrary to popular belief, a child does not have to be terminally ill to be eligible for a wish.
So what are some of the wishes that the chapter has granted in its more than 30 years as fairy godmothers and godfathers?
“It’s been everything from tree houses to a recent one — a synthetic ice skating rink. Our children have met presidents; two children met the Pope; a child met the first lady; they’ve requested and met every celebrity you could imagine from Taylor Swift to the Jonas Brothers. We had one young girl who waited a number of years to meet Paul McCartney.”
One of the Southern Florida chapter’s “Wish” kids wanted to be in a James Bond movie — “that was a while back,” Norm recalls — and another wanted to be in a Broadway play. “We were able to get her a cameo on Broadway in the musical Wicked.
Children’s wishes usually fall into four categories: “I wish to be” (something), “I wish to meet” (someone), “I wish to go” (somewhere), and “I wish to have” (something). Families are welcomed and encouraged to participate in the wish experience. Average cost of a wish? $5,000, according to foundation statistics.
“We’ve given a number of children horses, musical equipment, such as pianos. And then there are some that I will call ‘unique’ — a young man wanted to ring the bell to close the stock exchange. And he did.”
Wishes, Wedderburn says, are as large and as wide as the imagination of the children. The foundation’s “wish granters” — volunteers who go into the home of the child — have the job to help expand the imagination.
“They might really want to go to Disney World because that’s what they think is the top, but it might be something different once you start talking to them.”
Children are asked to arrive at 12 potential wishes. “We then narrow it down with the child so that we can really grant the child’s ‘No. 1’ heartfelt wish.”
Wedderburn, who has been the CEO of the Southern Florida chapter for the past 10 years, gave up practicing law to become head of the non-profit group. Another lawyer introduced Wedderburn to Make-a-Wish; he then joined the organization as a board member in 1998. Wedderburn got so involved, he says, he sold his interest in his law practice to work for the organization full time.
“What’s special about Make-a-Wish,” he says, is that we can show donors exactly what they’ve done with their money and the child that their donation has impacted, and that’s a really rare thing in the world of not-for-profit. Other organizations do incredible things, but you don’t always know what impact your money is having. If you come into my office, my walls are lined with pictures of ‘wish’ children that I have personally underwritten their wish. I know who they are, I know their disease, and I know where the dollars went.”
Make-a-Wish receives no state or federal funding, and all of the money to grant wishes is raised through corporate sponsorships, special events, foundation grants, and individual contributions.
While Wedderburn is proud that his chapter granted more wishes last year than all but three other chapters in the world — there are 62 chapters — he says there’s never a time to let the magic wand rest for even a second.
“While we are happy about the children we have reached, our goal is always to reach every eligible child in our community. Yes, we take a moment to celebrate our successes, but then we realize that there is still a lot of work to be done.”
Shareef Malnik cast a spell over his soon-to-be-wife, Gabrielle Anwar. While the Burn Notice actress had her own charities that she supported before she met her fiancé, his dedication to Make-a-Wish now has her in a solid and recurring role. She’s going on her fourth year as celebrity auctioneer at the annual Wishmaker’s Ball at the InterContinental Miami, which this year is set for Saturday, Nov. 7.
No doubt about it, Malnik has made a big impact on the annual charity, which this year will have a Greek mythology theme. “Something that she conjured up,” Malnik is quick to share during our interview.
“He’s so involved in the behind-the-scenes and making sure it’s a success, and every now and then I pipe up with an idea and I do it in a way that he has to listen,” Anwar jokes. “As it gets towards the night of the ball, we start rehearsing some of the ideas we’ve batted around for a few months.”
The couple’s “ideas” have become one of those “what will they do next?” highlights of the evening. And while listening to the two of them talk about their participation, their plans, and what surprises they have in store for this year’s event, you almost want to be a fly on the wall to see what goes on behind the scenes with the pair during these “brainstorming sessions.”
“Yes, we’ve had people say that to us before,” says Anwar, which is precisely why there is gag reel on YouTube of the couple “rehearsing” at the Miami City Ballet for the 2012 ball where they led the crowd in a Bollywood-inspired dance to the music of “Jai Ho,” from the movie Slumdog Millionaire. (“You know you have great legs in those tights,” Anwar says to her husband-to-be during this part of the conversation.)
“She whipped me into shape to dance in front of the crowd, and it was a good eight weeks,” says Malnik. “Eight weeks to get me to look at least okay next to her — a professional dancer.”
“Last year, it was the Wizard of Oz theme; I played the wizard and was hiding underneath her dress. The year before I got to saw her in half, which was definitely my idea.”
All kidding aside, Anwar says of her celebrity auctioneer role, which she says, in jest, that she was hesitant to take on because “I didn’t want to try to fill Paula Abdul’s shoes, even though they are tiny.” Abdul was the celebrity auctioneer at 2010’s ball and the first ball that Anwar attended with Malnik.
In her role as auctioneer, she says,“You have to inspire the spending of money, which is sometimes difficult to inspire, I’ve recently learned. But hopefully, Shareef and I come up with an idea every year that is going to be humorous, instill some emotion, and eventually lead to generosity. It’s really not an easy combo,” she confides.
Malnik, the owner of the legendary Miami Beach steakhouse, The Forge, became the chairman of the ball in 2004. “I made an observation, not realizing that it would lead to me becoming chairman. I thought that the direction the ball was going had a limited life — even though it was a sold-out event.” Since he took over as chairman, the gala’s profits have gone from $300,000 to last year’s $2.5 million.
So what’s his secret? “I think first and foremost, you have to spend money to make money. That old idea that a charity should try to get everything for free, and they can be as lean as possible — you end up making less money. And the goal for me here is the wishes. What will it take for me to get the most possible wishes out of the ball? What does it take to get people to want to spend money at the ball and to develop incentives so that they want to keep coming back?”
Malnik’s father, Al, is a lifetime benefactor — at the 2012 ball, Al Malnik announced a $1-million donation to the charity to establish the Malnik Family Wish Fund. The monies are intended to grant wishes “in perpetuity” to children with life-threatening diseases.
“I had been around Make-a-Wish because of my father; it was the late Nancy Strom, a founder of the Southern Florida chapter, who asked me to get involved as chairman. And the more I became involved, the more it became part of my DNA,” says Shareef.
Soon after becoming chairman, younger brother, Jarod — who was 6 at the time — was diagnosed with leukemia.
“He became eligible for a wish,” says Malnik. Jarod’s granted wish was to throw a strike over home plate at Fenway Park in a Red Sox game. He did it and got a standing ovation from the crowd. Today, Jarod is 16 years old and cancer free.
“I think this happening to my family gave me more empathy for the wish families and reinforced my commitment to Make-a-Wish,” says the charity ball chairman.
While Malnik did happen to have first-hand experience, CEO Norman Wedderburn says the signature event serves a very important introductory purpose. One of the main fundraising sources for Make-a-Wish Southern Florida chapter, the event is key to help “get a group of people who don’t naturally wake up one day and think about helping an organization that has not impacted their life. This gala has been used to really build awareness about the foundation and from there, get the kind of support that nurtures lifetime support. That’s the real secret in the sauce.”
Malnik adds: “It’s such a positive charity. You’re making people feel good today, as opposed to hoping that the money you give will help someone feel good some day in the future.”
Speaking of wishes, Malnik and Anwar will be married by the time the Wishmaker’s Ball rolls around. Dating since 2010, they’ve set Labor Day weekend to exchange their vows.
— Michelle F. Solomon
My Wish: A Story
By Ian Sallee
I’d like to tell you my story about my cantankerous and cancerous adventure that began when I was 16 years old. I am happy to report now, however, that I am 21 and have nearly five years of cancer-free scans under my belt.
The story began in 2010 when I was participating in a drama competition in Tampa. I was sick for most of the trip — so ill that I ended up not being able to compete, let alone leave the hotel room.
A few days later, when I returned home to Miami, I felt a bit better. But as the months wore on, I continued to have a pesky cough. For the summer months, I worked as a camp counselor, but two weeks into the job, I was sick again. I went to my family doctor. His diagnosis was that I had a bacterial infection.
I kept feeling sicker and sicker. It got so bad one day that I decided an emergency room visit was in order. They suggested a chest X-ray. What was revealed was a mass that had grown larger than my heart, located on my thymus gland, smack dab in the middle of my trachea. After a slew of tests, it was discovered to be mediastinal B-cell non-Hodgkin lymphoma. I was admitted to the hospital where I stayed for a little over two weeks. There were surgical procedures — then chemotherapy.
Dealing with cancer was the greatest hurdle of my life, but there were good experiences I didn’t even know existed, however, on the other side. I learned from hospital workers that because of my medical condition and my age, I was eligible for Make-a-Wish. It was one of sweetest things that occurred during this difficult time. And it gave me something incredibly special to look forward to — that when I finally got healthy, I would be able to, perhaps, have a wish come true. It was also a great opportunity for my family, who because of limited income, would also get the chance to do something unforgettable with me.
The road to my Make-a-Wish began after speaking with social workers in my oncology office. They told me to “dream big” since this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I didn’t only dream big, I dreamt “huge.” Over the next four years, I created a laundry list of wishes that included — but weren’t limited to — a trip to Uganda to track a family of gorillas, an Antarctic cruise, a chance to meet Nelson Mandela, and to be knighted by the Queen of England. And those were just the wishes I shared with Make-a-Wish.
I was determined to make sure that if the aforementioned wishes didn’t work out, something within the realm of possibility would come to fruition. It dawned on me that traveling was it — that was something that was in my heart to do. Since my family would be joining me, I wondered where I should go. Italy! I could spend quality time with my family, experience a new and different place, and learn about another culture.
When four years of treatment was finally over and my biopsy was negative for the lymphoma, I could finally fulfill my “wish.” I was going to Italy. The Make-a-Wish trip turned out to be one of the most enchanting and unforgettable experiences of my life, to date.
We ate delicious Italian meals, saw ancient and modern art, explored the streets, and bought mementos and souvenirs — normal tourist stuff. We visited Ischia, a volcanic island paradise that looked like a postcard. We traveled to the ruins of Pompeii and climbed to the top of Mount Vesuvius. We had a private tour of Rome and the Vatican. We climbed the Spanish Steps and on to the Coliseum. All of these experiences were astonishing, but more than that, I was grateful for the chance to be doing something special that most people would not have the opportunity to experience.
Make-a-Wish really does make a difference — whether they send a toddler to Walt Disney World or a 20-year-old to Italy. What Make-a-Wish does for children with life-threatening medical conditions is give them something to look forward to on the other side of difficult times when they are dealing with disease.
What Make-a-Wish does is give children hope.