Donna Zimmerman has bad days just like everybody else.
But the administrative clerk in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences has a surefire way out of the doldrums.
“I have a picture of him on my desktop, and if I start feeling sorry for myself, I just pull it up and look at his smile,” she said. “He was the cutest little kid. He was the first one we lost.”
She’s referring to a boy from Champaign whose family was teamed with Zimmerman about four years ago under the national Make-A-Wish volunteer program. The boy had leukemia.
Zimmerman had been granting wishes for just two years and she still remembers how sick the boy was when he and his family set off for a dream vacation at Disney World.
“He was so sick when he went to Disney I was wondering if we should have even sent him,” she recalled.
The boy’s doctors signed off on the trip and he returned excitedly sharing stories of Mickey and Minnie with medical staff members. He died soon after returning.
“I wasn’t programmed for that, but I eventually realized we helped him find some joy before he left us,” she said. “It was all he was talking about when he got back. It made me realize we really are doing something good and making a difference in their lives.”
Zimmerman was among the first at the UI to team with Make-A-Wish, celebrating its 25th year, and she continues to push for greater campus participation.
She was joined in that first meeting by Fred Mastny, a retiree from the UI Office of Academic Outreach, and his wife, Marilyn. All three had answered a newspaper ad asking for volunteers. The couple is now in charge of monitoring the progress of 22 regional volunteers.
“You certainly get attached to the kids – your heart goes out to them,” Fred Mastny said.
Zimmerman and Fred Mastny say they are always looking for more volunteers, especially those who can serve on the seven-county regional council. Council members are more active in recruitment and fund-raising, and serve as the organization’s public face at area events.
“We’re looking for people from all walks of life,” Zimmerman said. About a half-dozen UI employees are actively involved now, she said.
Representing the organization is a relatively easy task considering Make-A-Wish’s stellar track record of service, Fred Mastny said.
“Make-A-Wish has such a great reputation, most people know what it is and what it does,” he said. “The type of legwork and details depend on the wish, but it’s not really work when you consider what this does for the kids. When you see their reactions, you feel like you’re Oprah.”
Make-A-Wish requests are made nationally and then divvied through a regional network. Local volunteers take the wish from inception, help raise funds for it and then work to make it a reality. The average cost for a wish is about $5,000.
“We assess what the child’s wish is and if it’s possible, and then we work out all the details,” Zimmerman said. “There are all sorts of things you have to facilitate.”
Though a Disney trip is the most common wish request, Zimmerman, currently juggling three other wishes, said she has encountered all types: One boy wanted to spend the day on the couch watching TV with Peyton Manning; a little girl asked for a bedroom makeover; and another boy is hoping to become an assistant football coach for the Illini.
“It just depends on how fast (requests) come in and how fast you can plan them,” she said. “There are all sorts of stumbling blocks.”
The bedroom makeover wish taught Zimmerman another valuable lesson: Judging books by their covers leaves out pages of explanation.
“When I went to their house I thought I was going to fall through the steps,” she said. “By the end of the wish, I could see that family was rich beyond any big, fancy house – there was so much love and caring there.”
Zimmerman said she leaves her judgments at the doorstep and enjoys learning about the families she works with.
“Some of the families we still stay in touch with,” she said, noting not all of the children in the Make-A-Wish program are dying. “Once you see a child you’ve helped, you get it in your blood.”
Zimmerman has tried to transfuse that dedication into new volunteers, offering to help when student groups take up the Make-A-Wish cause.
Alyssa Wright, a junior in social work, who started a campus chapter of Make-A-Wish last year, said Zimmerman’s help has been invaluable. “She is our life support,” Wright said.
“When you’re a student, it’s really hard to make donation calls,” Wright said. “Usually they can tell it’s a student. She’s so willing to take the reigns and help us with anything.”
The campus group, which has about 15 active members, has so far raised $2,000 and set a goal of $5,000 in order to grant a local wish. “I think that’s pretty good for just starting last year,” Wright said. “We’re still trying to establish ourselves and build up our membership.”
Zimmerman also has supported the UI Chi Omega sorority chapter and said she’s proud at how active its members have become within the organization.
Kelly Gibbons, a senior in elementary education and past Chi Omega Make-A-Wish publicity chair, said the group raised more than $35,000 last year from several annual fundraising events – enough to grant six wishes.
“It just became something very close to our hearts,” she said. “The passion in our house has always been there. You can see where the money’s going and it’s helping local kids who need it.”
Gibbons should know. She was diagnosed with cancer in her leg when she was 9, and Make-A-Wish helped her family with a trip to Hawaii to swim with dolphins.
She said being a wish-granter is an unmatched experience.
“After a while it’s kind of addicting because of the way it makes you feel,” she said.
Zimmerman understands the feeling.
“Each year they raise more money than the year before,” Zimmerman said. “Now they’ve got it in their blood.”
For more than 25 years, the Make-A-Wish Foundation of Illinois has granted wishes to children with life-threatening medical conditions to enrich their lives with hope, strength and joy. The program provides a positive focus for children facing serious illness.
If you'd like to volunteer, 800-978-9474 or go online.
Jeans for Wishes fundraiser: March 14-18
To participate in the "Jeans for Wishes" fundraiser, register your unit online. Employees pay $5 to wear jeans on March 18 or $20 for the whole week. (Or with the start of March Madness, employees may choose to wear their favorite Illini apparel.)
Participating units will receive a Jeans for Wishes starter pack, which includes a banner, promotional materials and stickers for participants.
Participants may register and make donations online after their team is registered. Stories of children who received their wishes also are online and participants may send an encouraging note and well wishes to some of the children.