OBSERVER Staff Writer
Make-A-Wish Volunteer Michele Szalkowski of Dunkirk, far left, is pictured with wish child Mary, 5, of Forestville, along with her family, who wished to go to Disney World.
For children living with life threatening medical conditions, the power of a wish can make a child's dream come true. Make-A-Wish Metro New York and Western New York local chapter covers an area of 17 counties and relies on volunteers to help the organization's mission to bring hope, strength and joy to children and enrich the human experience.
Dunkirk resident Michele Szalkowski volunteers as a wish granter, but unfortunately she is one of the few volunteers in the local area. Just under 8 percent of medically eligible children, who receive wishes live in Chautauqua and Cattaraugus counties.
"We don't want to have a child wait just because of where they're geographically located to experience their wish," Local Program and Services Director Cheryl Unger said. "We just want to reach each and every eligible child and grant their wish in a timely manner."
Szalkowski has been a volunteer with Make-A-Wish for five years and said it was something she enjoys as an opportunity to give back.
"It was something that I always wanted to do. I had a family member get a wish. I also had a family member who was ill when they were young spending time up at Roswell," Szalkowski said.
As a wish granting volunteer, Szalkowski shared her experience. She meets with approved families and asks the child what their heartfelt wish is. Following the initial meeting, volunteers will stay in contact with the child and family.
Szalkowski receives wish requests through email from the organization's wish granting department and can choose which ones she would like to be assigned. To remain current as a wish granter, she must participate in at least two wishes per year but can work on additional wishes as desired.
She has worked on more than 40 wishes locally from Dunkirk to Forestville, Irving to Mayville and Jamestown to Randolph. While volunteers do not go on any trips with the families, volunteers can work on room makeovers, shopping sprees or deliver an item if the child requests a specific item purchased, such as a computer or video game system.
"I do the area I'm most comfortable with and familiar with," Szalkowski said.
Wishes that Szalkowski has been involved with include a shopping spree, travel wishes, celebrity wishes, an electronic wish and wishes to give back to the community. During a shopping spree, the child will get to go to stores of their choice and either go to lunch or dinner.
"It was an all day adventure. We got there before the stores open. We were able to get in ... and start our day," Szalkowski said. "(The children) have fun. It's the simple things."
Szalkowski said she worked on a wish for a child who wanted to go on a Nickelodeon cruise only to be slimed. She has granted wishes for some children who were unable to travel. One child received a playground and another received a special chair and computer.
"It's just very rewarding. It's a rewarding endeavor just to see their faces. (Wishes) brightens them up, it really does," Szalkowski said. "Even though they are nonverbal, (the children) just lit up. It was just the sweetest thing to see."
The time commitment for each wish that Szalkowski has worked on varies. Wishes such as a room makeover or a new playground do not take as much time as waiting to meet a celebrity or planning a trip. From the initial contact with families, Szalkowski said there is about three meetings with the family. Szalkowski said she enjoys volunteering. She enjoys seeing the children being able to light up and having the child temporarily forget that they are facing a life threatening disease.
"Just to see the smile on the kids' faces and the sparkle in their eyes. It's all about that child ... and to help them forget (about) what they're going through and the poking the prodding, even if it's just for a little while. Just help them have good quality family time," Szalkowski said. "It makes you feel good as a person inside too."
If interested in becoming a volunteer, an application can be found by contacting Lisa Johnson, local volunteer coordinator, at the Make-A-Wish Buffalo office. All volunteers will be subject to a background check and training is provided by the organization. The full-day training usually takes place on a weekend. According to Unger, the training is scheduled months in advance so potential volunteers can plan accordingly. Training must be done on a biannual basis to be recertified as a volunteer.
"We have an in-depth wish training. We train volunteers to be wish granters. We rely on them so much. We grant about 155 wishes per year. It's the wish granting volunteer that keeps it moving along for us.
"The volunteer and community support is what gives us the ability to reach each child that's medically eligible in our 17 counties. We really appreciate people stepping up to volunteer," Unger concluded.
Volunteers do not have to just work on wishes; there are other areas to volunteer in. Volunteers can help with fundraising and events, office work or as a speaker for the organization. Szalkowski helps with fundraising in addition to wish granting. She works with the 97 Rock Radio-Thon held annually in the fall. Make-A-Wish relies on donations through fundraisers and events. The organizations does not receive state or federal funding.
Volunteers are not limited to just one area and can be a wish granter and work in fundraising, for example like Szalkowski. Unger said volunteering through the organization is a rewarding experience.
"You walk away with, helping granting a wish, just a wonderful feeling. You've helped a child realize their dreams. It's really a first hand experience. You meet with the child ... and you're involved all the way through to the completion of the wish. You get to see the smiles and you've really created some magic. It really is powerful," Unger said.
For background information on Make-A-Wish, read "The Little Bubblegum Trooper" by Linda J. Bergendahl-Pauling, which tells the story of Pauling's young son who was made an honorary police officer. For an application or more information on volunteering, visit wny.wish.org or call 810-WISH.
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