The Power of a Wish

Offering far more than a trip to an exotic locale or the chance to meet a cast of celebrities, the Make-A-Wish Foundation helps heal the soul



Brad Davis soaking in the sun in Bora Bora

Wishes have power. They deliver hope. They help transport us from where we are to where we might be. And best of all, they’re uniquely ours.

Since 1986, the Make-A-Wish Foundation of Connecticut has been making wishes come true for youngsters ages two-and-a-half to eighteen who are facing a life-threatening illness. It seems fitting that in its silver anniversary year, the organization has also achieved its milestone 2,000th wish granted. That’s a lot of joy to bring to children and families who are carrying a heavy burden. Some kids choose dream vacations. Others want to meet famous people. And, of course, Disney World is always a popular choice. “We have to be realistic,” concedes Michael Dominick of Make-A-Wish Connecticut. “But we try our best to say there are no limits. The limits are the kids’ imaginations.”

As most recipients have found, the realization of their wish is almost secondary to other benefits. Just by having such a choice youngsters tend to shift their focus from their illness to the adventures they might enjoy. For every wish finally chosen, countless other ideas are happily considered. Anticipation is also part of the experience. Looking ahead to the big day in itself has boosted the spirits of more than one child who has grown weary of doctors and hospitals and being sick.

While many people believe that Make-A-Wish is solely for children who have a terminal illness, that’s not the case. Wishes are granted to those with medical conditions that are life-threatening, even if their prognosis is good. “A lot of our kids overcome their conditions and go on to live strong, healthy lives,” says Dominick.

Families of means, meanwhile, will often resist accepting a wish, thinking the group would do better to use its resources on less-privileged kids. In time, they come to understand that the experience goes beyond what money can buy. “There’s so much more to it,” says one parent. “Make-A-Wish allows you to have something to look forward to in those really bleak times, whether you’re wealthy or have nothing. The Make-A-Wish people surround you with this love and support. They come to your house. And they just make your child feel so important.”

Every wish granted involves the youngster’s family. Indeed, when people look back on their Make-A-Wish experience, they tend to remember the seemingly little pleasures, the fun they shared with loved ones, more than the bigger activity. “Whatever the wish is,” says Dominick, “everyone seems to come home feeling more like a family, feeling like they have a fresh start, that they’ve rejuvenated their energy.”

Here, we introduce you to some young people from town who have come to know Make-A-Wish well. Like most children who have faced a deadly disease, they have grown up fast. They’ve known dark days no child should know. And in coming away healthy, they have a new appreciation for life—and the power of a wish.

Brad Davis: Bonding in Bora Bora

Brad Davis’s choice of a wish was 6,500 miles from his family’s home in Old Greenwich and a world away from his battle with cancer.

In 2006, Brad was a freshman at Greenwich High School, coming off a successful season on the junior varsity water polo team, when he found himself laid low with exhaustion. Diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia on the day before Thanksgiving, he would spend the next three-and-a-half years in and out of Maria Fareri Children’s Hospital at Westchester Medical Center, beating back the disease. Chemotherapy left him nauseous and frail. And unexpected problems such as blood clots that caused his right arm to swell to a frightening size and an emergency appendectomy set back his recovery.

Still, Brad says he emerged from his illness changed for the better. “Getting sick really opened my eyes to the idea that life’s short,” he says. “And I decided to look at the glass as half full from now on.”

Among other things, he began paying more attention to his schoolwork as well his plans for college and a career. With his mother, Kathy, he also created the nonprofit BRAD Fund (Benefiting Research Achieving Dreams), which has raised more than $50,000 for pediatric cancer research. Today, he’s a sophomore at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, where he is studying sociology, and intends to go into law enforcement. Best of all, he’s strong again, so much so that he made the school’s water polo squad this year.

When Make-A-Wish came along, back when he was still in the throes of his illness, Brad had trouble coming up with a suitable wish. But when one of the group’s representatives suggested he consider a trip somewhere, Brad got to thinking. “All right,” he said, “how about Bora Bora?” His parents had gone to nearby Tahiti for their honeymoon, he remembered, and he liked the idea of staying in a bungalow on stilts out over aqua-blue water, for which the island is famous. Best of all, it was something his entire family, his parents, Ed and Kathy, and brother, Ted, could enjoy as much as he would.

After all, he reasoned, they had been with him every step the way. Kathy spent many a night sleeping on a sofa in Brad’s hospital room while Ed held down the fort at home. “You just go through day to day,” says Ed. “You can’t put yourself in a fetal position and hide under the bed. It’s not going to go away. So you deal with it.”

For a week on Bora Bora, in the South Pacific, the family primarily dealt with relaxing. They stretched out on the beach, swam in the lagoon, fed rays the size of coffee tables and took in the sights. The water, Brad reports, is every bit as pristine as the travel brochures suggest. “We went snorkeling in eighty to a hundred feet of water and you can see the bottom crystal clear like it was five feet away,” he says.

Cancer was one world, a daily grind. Bora Bora made it all seem long ago and far away. “It was a good way to close the circle,” says Brad, “a good way to kind of close off the story.”

Jessie Stuart: Spending a day at The Office

When Jessie Stuart and her family arrived on the set of The Office, the cast was in the midst of taping a scene. No sooner than it was done, however, actor Steve Carell appeared in the visitors’ room and greeted the guests like they were old friends. So began a day of unabashed fun for a family that had been through the wringer.

“When I was sick that was the show we would all watch together every Thursday,” remembers Jessie. “It was a nice half-hour break where we were laughing the whole time. So to go to the set was a cool way to come full circle with the whole thing.”

Seven years have passed since Jessie, then twelve, was diagnosed with an aggressive form of lymphoma, a cancer that strikes the immune system. And though her odds of beating the disease were good, treatment would exact a toll on the patient and her family. Jessie, who is now a sophomore at Stanford University, received chemotherapy in every form imaginable, from pills to injections in her spine, for more than two years. “I lost my hair,” she says. “I couldn’t go to school. I had played a lot of sports and now I couldn’t play any. It was the little things I wasn’t able to do that was really hard.”

She was still in the early stages of her treatment at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York when her doctor mentioned that the hospital worked with Make-A-Wish and that Jessie might start considering what her wish would be. For the Greenwich teen, just thinking about the possibilities was a pleasant distraction. Her first idea, to attend the Academy Awards, couldn’t be arranged. Then, she started focusing on her favorite television programs. It finally came down to a choice between visiting the sets of The Office or Law and Order: SVU, with the crew from Dunder Mifflin ultimately getting the nod.

Between the show’s seasonal production schedule and the hectic life of a family with four children (Jessie being the oldest), it took awhile to arrange the visit. But when the pieces fell into place in October of 2010, the Stuarts had an experience they’ll long remember. Besides meeting and being photographed with the cast at the show’s studios in Los Angeles, the family watched the filming of what would be the Christmas episode. Jessie got to man the clapperboard. They ate lunch with the actors and cavorted around the set while the writers peppered them with questions about their favorite storylines and scenes.

That Jessie emerged from her treatment cancer free was the biggest wish that came true. But visiting The Office, with its combination of humor, celebrity and shared experience as a family helped put a wrap on what had been a trying
journey. “It took this terrible thing and gave it a wonderful, nice topping,” explains her mom, Lisa. “It was so much greater than we ever could have imagined.”

Brooke Lorenz: Setting her sights on Jamaica

Brooke Lorenz would be the first to tell you that she and her family had a fantastic time on her Make-A-Wish trip to Jamaica in March. But the true value of receiving a wish came not in its fulfillment but in its power to carry her through the racking chemotherapy regimen she had to endure to prevail over Hodgkin’s disease. “It wasn’t the actual wish; that was just an ending point,” she says. “It was having something to look forward to. It was something to get me into the chemo chair each week, knowing that I would be that much closer to something beautiful, something amazing, and something I could share with my family.”

There’s no good time to be told one has cancer, but Brooke’s diagnosis came at a particularly unfortunate point. She was two weeks away from heading off for her freshman year at Arizona State University, where she had her heart set on playing Division One water polo. Now, instead of starting college, she would endure eight months of soul-draining chemotherapy. And though she took heart in her doctors at Sloan-Kettering saying that she might only need eight treatments rather than the usual twelve, that, too, fell by the wayside. “When I found out I wasn’t doing as well as they hoped and I had to add treatments, it crushed my world,” she says. “It was the saddest day of my life.”

 That was about the time that Make-A-Wish entered the picture. A friend of Brooke’s mother had mentioned the group, and as Brooke learned more, she became intrigued. Initially, her ideas for a wish were to meet singer Taylor Swift or to be the batgirl for the New York Yankees. But neither of those satisfied her deeper desire to share her wish with her family, whom she wanted to somehow repay for going through so much on her behalf. (Her older sister Paige in particular had set aside her own life to come home to be with Brooke.) And though her loved ones hardly thought of their efforts as a sacrifice, Brooke decided that a vacation in Jamaica would be just the thing.

“Her wish was to be someplace warm and sunny and relaxing and calm,” says her mother, Lorrie, “just to repair herself, to repair all of us.”

A month and a half after her treatment was done and on the heels of a big snowstorm, Brooke, her parents, and Paige were kicking back in Montego Bay. (Two other siblings were off at work and college.) “Parasailing was the most magical part of the trip,” says Brooke, now a freshman at the University of Colorado in Boulder. “We actually did it spur of the moment and it was the most beautiful thing I think I’ve ever seen in my life. I was up there with my dad and I was just crying I was so happy. For some reason at that moment it really hit me: ‘Thank God I’m here, I can’t believe I’m here.’”    

Pierce Filippelli: Meeting a Legend

For Pierce Filippelli, meeting Steve Jobs was more than a wish come true; it was the inspiration he needed to go out and face life head-on. The cofounder of Apple Inc. was someone Pierce admired. Indeed, it was an Apple laptop that helped keep the Greenwich resident occupied during his many stays at Yale-New Haven Hospital when he was being treated for lymphoma. But more than that, Pierce felt a connection with Jobs, whose own battle with pancreatic cancer was well known. If Jobs could confront cancer and return to work running his company, the youngster felt, what was to stop him from having a good life as well?

Over smoothies, Jobs and Pierce talked by themselves for two and a half hours that day in 2006 at Apple’s headquarters in Cupertino, California. And though Pierce holds their conversation as mostly private, he will say that Jobs told him they had something in common. “He said that we both know the true gift of life because of what we battled, that we know that there’s a lot more to life than going to work and making money,” he remembers. “He was saying, basically, ‘Do something magical with yours, make a difference.’”

When Pierce heard of Jobs’s death in October he says, “I was stunned. I was like, ‘It’s impossible, he’s immortal.’”

Pierce had first learned of his own cancer in 2004, just before his freshman year at Greenwich High School. He hadn’t been feeling well for several days. Besides being unable to sleep, he was having severe stomach pains. Then, while playing in a water polo match, he took a shot to the stomach that caused him so much pain that he finally went to the emergency room. Before he knew it, he was at Yale–New Haven Hospital being treated for an aggressive form of cancer known as Burkitt’s lymphoma. What followed was more than a year of treatment, including six rounds of chemotherapy and surgery to remove a tumor from his abdomen that was “between the size of a grapefruit and a volleyball.”

Pierce had been an active kid, but now he found himself unable to do much of anything. He missed most of ninth grade. And sports, which he loved so much, was out of the question. “I couldn’t even open a pudding container I was so weak,” he says. “I couldn’t walk more than ten feet; my parents had to help me.”

When the possibility of Pierce receiving a wish first came up, his father, John, was aghast. Like a lot of people, he mistakenly thought that Make-A-Wish was only for kids who were terminally ill. “He was horrified because he thought, ‘Oh, he’s going to die,’” remembers Gina Filippelli, Pierce’s mom. “I said ‘No, no, no, it’s not like that at all.’ Life-threatening is bad enough.”

As it turned out, Pierce’s parents were so taken by the organization that five years ago they began taking an active role in helping organize the group’s annual Celebrating Wishes Ball. Last year alone, the fundraiser took in an impressive $500,000. Pierce’s future looks bright. He graduates from Fordham next year and wants to go into corporate or financial sales. Between his bout with cancer and his conversation with Jobs, he’s facing life with a new perspective. “I don’t stress out as much,” he says. “I’m happy I have a life and that I have a close family. I have a better outlook now.”       

 

Greenwich Agenda

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