Carissa Outen wanted to swim with the dolphins.
Diagnosed with follicular lymphoma at 16, she endured six months of chemotherapy and desperately needed a break from doctor visits, blood draws and grim news.
Enter Make-A-Wish. The nonprofit foundation sent Outen, her mother and her sister on a Caribbean cruise. “It was incredible,” she recalled. “It was like the whole cruise was put on just for us.”
Shortly after they returned from the cruise in 2009, she found out her cancer had returned. “It came back faster and at a higher stage,” Outen said. “It’s chronic – not curable.”
She underwent aggressive chemotherapy and a stem cell transplant in 2010. The following year, Outen started college at Gonzaga University. She is not currently in treatment.
Although an internship isn’t mandatory for her major, this summer she decided she wanted to connect with a local nonprofit and give back. Her first choice? Make-A-Wish.
“Out of the all the childhood cancer organizations, it’s been the one most important to me,” said Outen, now 22. “It’s very simple – it’s just about helping kids.”
Angela Geiss, regional co-director of Make-A-Wish Washington, was delighted to hear from the former wish-recipient. “I was the one who planned her wish.”
And Outen’s assistance is needed. With only two staff members in the regional office, the organization depends on its interns and volunteers. “We have 107 volunteers in Eastern Washington, and believe it or not, that’s not nearly enough,” Geiss said.
Geiss said they receive 35 to 40 referrals per month, and more than half of those qualify for the program. Make-A-Wish grants wishes to children age 2 1/2 to 18 who have been diagnosed with a life-threatening medical condition.
The wishes are as varied as the children themselves, but Geiss said they generally fall into four categories:
• A wish to go somewhere
• A wish to meet someone
• A wish to have something
• A wish to be something
“But there’s a new category emerging,” Geiss said. “A wish to give something. We had one young man who wanted to use his wish to help an orphanage in Africa that cares for children with HIV/AIDS.”
Once a referral is approved, volunteer wish granters step into action. Working in teams of two, they visit the child and learn about the child’s dream. “When you go out on that first wish, it gets you hooked,” Geiss said.
While 60 percent of wishes are Disney-related, Geiss said children’s wishes can be surprising.
“One girl wanted to be a ballerina, but she was in a wheelchair,” Geiss said. “We were able to work with a ballet company in Seattle who choreographed a ballet incorporating wheelchairs and lots of arm movements. It’s a great example of how we can make seemingly impossible things happen.”
Outen is not the only one who’s giving back after being touched by the organization. Vicki Jackson-Butler witnessed the happiness Make-A-Wish gave her younger brother when he was diagnosed with leukemia at 15 (he’s now healthy). “He wanted to go on a fishing trip to Alaska,” she said. “I was blown away by this organization. The joy they brought to our family was amazing.”
She started volunteering in 2006. “It’s magical,” she said. “It’s like being a fairy godmother.”
She said one of the best things about working with Make-A-Wish is watching the community become involved. “It’s like a snowball effect.”
For example, a boy wanted to do model trains with his dad. A local model railroad club, INSHOME, pitched in with gusto. “They built a wooden track in the garage and helped lay all the track,” Jackson-Butler said.
Bachmann Trains in Pennsylvania shipped tracks, scenery and trains – including a limited-edition Spider-Man engine. “Watching these guys open the boxes was so much fun,” she said.
Outen is ready to be part of that fun. “Cancer is not on my mind a lot anymore,” she said. “It’s only a part of me – not all of me.”
For Jackson-Butler, volunteering with Make-A-Wish serves as an important reminder. “Every wish that I do reveals how much kindness there is in the world.”