Wishful doing

“Doctors provide the medicine, and we provide the magic,” say Denise and Avi Bar-Aharon, founders of Make-A-Wish Israel.

The Pope with Make-a-Wish  (photo credit: Courtesy)
The Pope with Make-a-Wish
(photo credit: Courtesy)
‘My brother David passed away 20 years ago. He was only 29 but always gave; he was very philanthropic. He studied in Israel and made aliya from the US. One year and four months after he was diagnosed with cancer, he died,” says Denise Bar-Aharon, founder of Make-A-Wish Israel. “One year after David’s death, my husband and I, who lived in Israel with our two-year-old daughter, wanted to do something to commemorate him. I remembered the Make-A-Wish organization in the States and wanted to open a branch in Israel. We started 18 years ago, this is chai [life], and immediately Avi and his brother Dori became involved as well. Two years ago my brother-inlaw Dori died of cancer. We act in the memory of David and Dori,” says Denise.
Denise grew up in Los Angeles and Avi in Israel. They met in the US while studying textiles at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, and worked together in the import and export business.
They made aliya on January 15, 1991, arriving in Israel the day the Gulf War erupted. They received gas masks and were the only olim to arrive that day. The night they landed, the sirens started.
Just as nothing frightened them then, nothing has frightened them all along the way, and they break through uncharted territory. Today they live in Netanya with their three children, aged 16, 22 and 25, and inspire many people by their actions, me included.
How did it all start?
: After my brother David died, I wanted to do something good because of his kind nature. But I couldn’t do it alone. At the beginning, we had the assistance of our team at the company and enlisted the help of our friends.
Everybody worked pro bono, great people who started the organization with us. We had to convince hospitals and social workers that we were the real deal. We didn’t even have an apartment yet, but we started. We were 34, and we combined it all: the business, the family and the organization.
Our kids grew up with it.
Avi: My ambition was driven by our personal tragedy. My brother-in-law David had talked about his desire to find a way to help children. He was a man who always tried to help people.
What do you actually do at Make-A-Wish?
Denise: We fulfill the wishes of children under the age of 18 who have life-threatening illnesses, such as cancer, WProfile ishful doing Fulfilling Muli’s wish, a pirate ship in the garden Justin Timberlake and Oranit transplants, severe heart diseases, AIDS and more. Make- A-Wish is an international organization. We are one of 41 countries, and we follow the regulations of Make-a-Wish International. When we started in Israel 18 years ago, there were 12 branches. To date, we have fulfilled 2,000 wishes.
What kinds of wishes do you receive?
Denise: We have the ability to fulfill any wish. If a boy wants to see football player Messi, we will take him to Spain. If a girl from abroad wants to visit the Kotel, we will help her do that. This is called ‘wish assist.’ One of our first wishes was that of a 15-year-old boy named Erez who wanted to meet Tom Cruise. Through a celebrity coordinator, I made that happen. Tom Cruise took Erez to a movie premiere, walked with him on the red carpet, and that gave Erez confidence.
If a child wants to fly to the moon, we take him to the space center in Washington. Yoni Dotan, the son of late actor Dudu Dotan, met president Bill Clinton 16 years ago. He was wish number 34. Today Yoni is alive and well and is unstoppable.
In fact, he is on our board. A four-year-old boy wanted to meet the heroes of 9/11, the firefighters. We recently flew children to see the Mundial in Brazil. Another child, five-yearold Muli, wanted to have a pirate ship, so we had a carpenter build him one in his backyard. I love unique requests, such as the girl who wanted to have an exhibition of her paintings.
What is the effect of a fulfilled wish?
: Prof. Tal Ben-Shahar teaches about happiness and having a positive attitude. I met him, and he became a friend of Make-A-Wish. He took 55 children and studied the wish impact. The results of his year-and-a half research will be published next year in various scientific magazines. In brief, it proved that after a wish is fulfilled, the child responds better to medication and has more energy. We believe in offering hope, strength and joy.
Do you listen to all kids and all wishes?
A child is a child is a child. We don’t differentiate between Jews, Christians, Muslims, Bahai, etc. When the pope came to Israel, we had seven Arab Christian children who wanted to meet him, and it was approved. They met with him at the President’s House in Jerusalem.
How do you finance your activities?
We are financed through donations, since we don’t receive support from the government. We have an annual fund-raising auction and special projects. We also have a program in 75 schools called ‘Kids for Wish Kids’, where we talk about our mission, and the students choose a wish and do everything they can to fulfill it. That is how I learned about Make-A-Wish when I was living in the States. We also receive private donations. We always think creatively. This year Make-A-Wish Israel will be collaborating with both Maccabi Tel-Aviv Soccer club and Maccabi Tel-Aviv Basket Ball team to help our cause in various create ways. There was an ad on TV recently, and the child actor had shaved his hair for it. He donated the money he earned for the commercial to Make-A-Wish.
Are many people willing to help?
From our day-to-day activities, we started to create more cycles. At the beginning, the big challenge was to convince social workers and doctors that we wouldn’t let a child down who was in despair. Creating trust was the first thing, next to the iron-clad message that we couldn’t let them down.
Everything was a project. Today, we are a well-respected organization in the business community and among the artists who lend a helping hand. We are now a well-known organization, and things are not that complicated. In the early days, we interviewed dozens of children and fulfilled their wishes ourselves, until we gathered volunteers to help us.
Many young people volunteer with us, as well as wish kids who have recovered. It has a lot of power.
Denise: Actors, singers and athletes are very generous and eager to help. This is an honest and trustworthy organization. We run it like an enterprise, with the heart of a philanthropist but the skills of a businessperson.
How does it run, working as a twosome?
Denise and I worked together in our business life, so it was obvious that we would do this together as well. She works with the international aspect of the organization, and I work with the Israeli aspect -- the operation, working with authorities and hospitals. My role is to maintain the vision, come up with creative ideas and find good marketing and business strategies.
How do you manage to keep smiling with such emotionally demanding tasks?
Personally, at a certain point I asked to stop interviewing children because of a particular wish kid. We managed to fulfill his wish, but unfortunately he left us…. That still affects me. In this world, we hear the ticking of the clock, the reminder that every day that passes will not return. We understand that, but reality brings us routine. At Make-A-Wish, we understand that time does not play on the side of the kids, and that affects our reality as well.
Denise: We are six women working in the office. We meet with a psychologist regularly to talk about our feelings. It is fantastic to go to the office every morning and work with women who get tears in their eyes and feel so fortunate that this is what they do. We move from one wish to another, from one sadness to another. There is also mourning, even if we are not that close to the child. Our intention is to come in, fulfill the wish, and move on. The doctors provide the medicine, and we provide the magic. This is the best thing in the world. I feel like it is a selfish job because I derive so much gratification from it.
If you are interested in helping to fulfill a wish, volunteering or if you know of a sick child, contact Make-A-Wish Israel at (09) 760-2848 or www.makeawish.org.il.
Please help us grant many more magical wishes by rounding up your credit card transactions to the nearest shekel by dialing *3025.