Turning dreams into reality

Granting more than 3,000 children the joy of a fulfilled desire, the Make-A-Wish Foundation is celebrating 20 years in Israel.

Pope Francis blesses seven Make-A-Wish children during his visit to Israel. (photo credit: Courtesy)
Pope Francis blesses seven Make-A-Wish children during his visit to Israel.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Wishes can come true – that’s the lesson that the Israel branch of the Make-A-Wish Foundation teaches.
Celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, the organization has succeeded in turning dreams into reality for thousands of children with life-threatening illnesses across the country.
“In 20 years it’s been an incredible ride, it’s been a life journey,” says Denise Bar-Aharon, CEO and co-founder of Make-A-Wish Israel.
Her organization is the Israeli affiliate of Make-A-Wish International, whose sole mission is to grant wishes to children with life-threatening medical conditions.
She and her husband, Avi, started the local branch in her brother David’s name after he died of esophageal cancer at age 28.
“In America, where I’m originally from, I remembered the Make-A-Wish Foundation in Los Angeles, and so we brought the foundation to Israel 20 years ago. Since its inception, approximately 3,000 wishes have been granted,” she says.
What differentiates it from other foundations is that the focus of the organization is solely on the child’s dreams and enjoyment, rather than the suffering stemming from their disease.
“We really strongly believe in the healing power of a wish come true,” says Bar-Aharon. “The doctors give the medicine, and we give the magic.”
Today, Make-A-Wish has 38 affiliates that cover 50 countries.
Ten-year-old Ayman Yassin from the Galilee town of Tamra was Israel’s first Make-A-Wish child in 1986. Yassin was a patient at an Oklahoma City hospital waiting for a liver transplant when Dr.
Eliezer Katz, a Jerusalem native, put in a call to the foundation. During his interview in Israel, the boy asked for a computer, and the organization granted his wish, starting a long legacy that continues to this day.
Social workers in all of the country’s hospitals are aware of the organization and use it as part of treatment to help maintain the children’s motivation and emotional state.
“It’s not only cancer, it’s life-threatening illnesses of all kinds, from transplants to heart disease, AIDS. We have a list of diseases you’ve never seen before,” Bar-Aharon explains.
Once a child is referred to the organization – by the hospital, family members or themselves – two representatives from the Make-A-Wish Foundation office interview the patient.
“We have about 60 active volunteers.
We go out to their house and interview them, and we have a questionnaire where we find out about them, what their favorite food is, their favorite music, and this helps them get to the wish,” she says. “Then, on the day of the wish itself, we enhance the wish with all their favorite things.”
Neta Mainz, marketing manager at Make-A-Wish Israel, says of the interview process that “you always get connected.”
A particular case that stands out in her mind is that of 14-year-old cystic fibrosis patient Ya’ara.
“The interview was very special, because you never know what to expect when you go into a home,” Mainz recalls.
“We waited for her to come home from school, and suddenly in walked the happiest child I’ve ever seen in my life, who’s going through hell on a daily basis.”
Cystic fibrosis is a terminal disease, with no remission and onerous daily treatment.
Mainz says she sat in shock for 30 seconds when Ya’ara walked in, because she “was so cheerful and so happy, you would never know she was ill.
“She started telling us about things that she loves and all sorts of activities that she enjoyed. She had the most hectic schedule. I don’t know how she kept up, but she did everything and led a very normal life. Her parents did everything to make her feel as normal as possible, with her limitations,” says the marketing manager.
“There is a moment in an interview where you see that sparkle in their eyes and you know, boom, you got it,” she continues, and one of the things Ya’ara blurted out in her interview was that she loved astronomy and was interested in hula dancing. So for her wish, the foundation decided to do a private screening in the planetarium.
When Ya’ara came out, all of her friends and family were wearing Hawaiian skirts and leis to make the experience as powerful as possible.
Wishes generally fall under four categories within the framework of the organization: “I want to be,” “I want to have,” “I want to meet,” and “I want to go.”
The company rarely declines a wish that is within the parameters of possibility – “from Tom Cruise to Madonna and Beyoncé, anyone under the sun,” says Bar-Aharon. “Because we’re global, it makes it so easy; nothing is impossible.”
Of course, wishes do not always take the form of overseas travel or celebrity meet-and-greets; some children opt for experiences closer to home.
“There was a very special child who wanted to spend three or four days in the desert with just his father and guides,” Mainz says.
The child’s time was spent learning about the desert, the animals and cooking over a fire. He died soon after his wish was granted.
“For probably 30 to 40 percent of the children we grant wishes to, it is their last wish,” says Bar-Aharon.
“We tell the children, if it’s a domestic wish, like ‘I want a bedroom makeover’ or ‘I want a golf cart’ [because they have mobility difficulties], it [the process] usually takes up to three months,” she adds. International wishes have no designated time frame, but if it takes more than a year to arrange, the children get the opportunity to change their wish.
Avi Bar-Aharon says that over the last 20 years, the organization has given him great perspective on his life and everyday challenges.
“Everyone knows and understands that life is short,” he says. “Everyone believes in fulfilling all your dreams.”
His wife adds, “When I get old and gray, I’m going to say what is it that I did, but later on what a privilege I’ve been given to be able to come into the lives of these children and make a difference.”
With more than 500 children diagnosed with cancer and other diseases each year, she says it can be difficult to service all wishes, but hopes to be able to do so successfully in the future.
The Make-A-Wish Israel office can be contacted via the organization’s website, http://www.makeawish.org.il, or its Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/MakeawishIL?ref=tn_tnmn.