2023 has already been a big year for Make-A-Wish.
Wish Week fundraisers have been in full swing at local schools this winter, and basketball legend Michael Jordan donated $10 million — the largest individual donation ever — to the national organization last month.
And spring 2023 could be even bigger.
Make-A-Wish Colorado celebrates its 40th anniversary this year and is hosting an anniversary celebration and fundraiser in April in Denver.
Since it started, Make-A-Wish Colorado has granted more than 6,000 wishes for children with critical illnesses as a way of giving them hope and something to look forward to during their treatment.
Golden’s Ben Bontrager, 10, went to Hawaii for his wish last spring. He was diagnosed in early 2020 with Burkitt’s lymphoma and was sick for almost a year, with his mom Sarah saying, “We almost lost him a couple times.”
Ben, who’s now in remission, said going to Hawaii was “the first thing idea that popped in my head,” because he wanted to get out and do something fun.
“I was sick of being home,” he continued.
Now, Ben and his family are becoming Make-A-Wish ambassadors so that they can help other families through the same process.
Dad Jeff Bontrager said Ben’s wish was a “bright spot” to think about during those long days at the hospital, adding, “The thought that (Make-A-Wish) has done it over and over for people, it’s really pretty amazing.”
Joan Mazak has been the proverbial fairy godmother for thousands of Colorado children after she founded the organization in 1983. She started it in honor of her daughter, Jennifer, who died at 7 years old of a liver disease.
Mazak recalled how, about a week before Jennifer’s death, she was granted an unofficial wish to meet local radio mascot KIMN Chicken. He stopped by the family’s house, walking around the entire property hand-in-hand with Jennifer. Many of the neighborhood children stopped by to see KIMN Chicken, but he was focused on making Jennifer feel special.
“It was great for her to be able to have that,” Mazak said.
After Jennifer’s death, Mazak used funds that people had raised for a liver donation to start Make-A-Wish Colorado. There were only three other chapters in the country and no national organization yet, she said.
The local chapter was all volunteers working out of their homes, helping to create memories for children who needed them. Mazak said the very first wish was to catch a fish, so they set up a fishing trip at Dillon Reservoir.
Longtime volunteer Gary Aboussie recalled wishes to meet the pope and the Broncos. One of his favorite stories was sending a guitar to Bruce Springsteen to sign, him keeping that one, and sending back his own guitar instead with a special message.
Mazak said of wishes: “They come in all shapes and sizes. There are so many logistics to putting together a single wish. It’s different for every single family.”
About 20 years ago, Make-A-Wish Colorado started partnering with local schools for Wish Week fundraisers. Mazak said it’s been a win-win situation, as it helps instill philanthropy in the students and raises money for their sick peers. Plus, she always loves seeing schools' creative fundraising methods, like shaving teachers’ heads or taping their principals to the wall.
While financial contributions are needed, so are volunteers.
Aboussie described how meeting Make-A-Wish children and their families “touches your mind and heart.” So, he works to help however he can — whether that’s serving on the board of directors or speaking at events.
“(Volunteering) shows you how much more there is to do,” he said. “… We can’t stop the problems, but we can ease the efforts and give the child something to dream about when they’re going through the possibly the most difficult time of their life.”
Both Aboussie and Mazak stressed how much these children and their families need “a sense that there will be a better tomorrow,” as Aboussie described it. They said these children also need to feel normal after feeling different during their formative years.
Hope and normalcy
Castle Rock’s Jack Rodell, 8, might be a little shy, except when it comes to talking about the best day of his life.
On Nov. 14, Jack was the guest of honor at a Colorado Avalanche game. He described the entire day in detail, saying he met the players, got his own jersey and more.
Jack, who wants to be a professional hockey player when he grows up, was diagnosed with leukemia but has been in remission for two years. His wish was delayed because of COVID-19.
Over the past few years, he’s represented Make-A-Wish Colorado at fundraising events, and he and his family are now becoming wish ambassadors, like the Bontragers.
“When your kid is diagnosed with cancer, and you just live appointment to appointment, it’s very lonely,” his mom Krystalyn said. “… In his head, he just feels different. … It’s nice to see other people celebrate him, and it’s something he’ll remember for the rest of his life.”
That’s something Denver’s Austen Swinton can confirm.
Swinton, who’s graduating from the University of Colorado-Boulder this spring, was diagnosed with end-stage renal failure as a child and eventually received a kidney transplant. For her wish, she met singer and actress Demi Lovato at a July 2009 concert.
After the two met backstage, Lovato pulled Swinton on stage and asked her to sing “This Is Me” for the crowd. Swinton said she didn’t have stage fright at all, and Lovato sang with her.
The two reunited last year when Swinton spoke at World Wish Day in California where Lovato was being honored for helping Make-A-Wish.
Swinton, now 23, said her experiences with Make-A-Wish helped brighten her life when she needed it most.
“Looking back at how much I was going through at that age — I was only 10 or 11 when I was on dialysis — I was missing out on some of those peak childhood moments,” she continued. “ … Everyone says how much a wish impacts a child. You don’t truly know until you’re living that experience.”
Having a wish granted is the best day in a child’s life, Jack described, and now he’s hoping he can help other children as an ambassador, paying forward all the kindness he received.
“People really helped me, and I want to help other people so they feel the same way,” Jack said. “I felt special. I felt really happy. … I want other kids to feel happy.”