If you could have one wish, what would it be? Staffers at the nonprofit Make-A-Wish Foundation of Central and Western North Carolina ask that question every day.
They ask children like 7-year-old Sydney Hooper of Huntersville, who was diagnosed with adrenal cancer in 2007, and 13-year-old Marcus Brown of Charlotte, who was born with sickle cell anemia.
Each year the local Make-A-Wish chapter grants more than 220 wishes to kids ages 2 ½ to 18 with life-threatening illnesses, giving them a healthy dose of fun during difficult times. “It’s an escape from the needles, the tests, the hospitals and the day-to-day drama that goes along with their medical condition,” says chapter president Doug Hartjes. “It gives them a chance to be a kid again.”
For Sydney, a first-grader at Community School of Davidson, there was only one place she wanted to go – Disney World. She’d made her first visit to the Magic Kingdom in 2007 at the age of 3. Four days after returning home from that trip, her family learned that Sydney had adrenal cancer. It’s a rare condition in children and involves glands that produce hormones.
Staffers at the Pediatric Hematology/Oncology Clinic at Levine Children’s Hospital told the Hoopers about Make-A-Wish. But with a year and a half of treatment ahead, they opted to wait until Sydney felt strong enough to enjoy the trip.
“She had chemotherapy every three weeks for eight rounds,” says Sydney’s mother, Toni Hooper. “She was remarkable in the hospital. She still wanted to go do crafts in the playroom and go get fresh air. She still wanted to play.”
In September, when Sydney reached her two-year milestone for being cancer-free, the Hoopers began planning their Florida trip. “Awesome” is how Sydney describes the weeklong visit, which included Halloween weekend. She had her picture taken with the Seven Dwarves, ate ice cream for breakfast and rode every ride in the Magic Kingdom, including her favorite – the Astro Orbiter.
Meeting Princess Jasmine from Disney’s “Aladdin” movie was Sydney’s favorite part of the trip. She also got a makeover at the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique, complete with hair extensions and pink nail polish.
Because the Hoopers stayed at the Give Kids The World Village, a nonprofit that partners with Make-A-Wish, Sydney got extra hugs and attention from all the Disney characters. It was a trip the family will never forget.
“One thing you learn,” says Toni Hooper, “is not to let a moment pass, because you’re not always guaranteed another one. You never know. When you have to sit and watch your child go through something like this, to see them now functioning and being a normal happy child – it’s just amazing.”
Any child with a life-threatening medical condition is eligible to have a wish granted through Make-A-Wish, says Hartjes. Children are often referred by medical professionals, but can also be recommended by parents or can refer themselves. About 20 percent of the children served have terminal illnesses.
Nationally, Hartjes says more than 27,000 children are diagnosed with life-threatening illnesses each year. About 13,000 of them have wishes granted by Make-A-Wish chapters nationwide.
Marcus Brown, an eighth grader at Kennedy Middle School, had his wish granted last January when he became an honorary Charlotte Bobcat for a game at Time Warner Cable Arena. The announcer called his name and Marcus got to run out on the court with the team. He sat on the bench during the game and went home with a Bobcats jersey for himself and another one signed and framed by the team.
Marcus, who takes daily medication for sickle cell anemia, also got two weeks of basketball instruction at local camps plus playing tips from a personal trainer. His 14-year-old sister, Ayesha, who also has sickle cell anemia, got a wish granted to go to Disney World.
“He loved it,” Marcus’s grandmother, Mary Brown, said of his basketball dream-come-true. “He told all his friends. Some even came up to him and said, “I saw you on TV.”
To learn more For details on the Make-A-Wish Foundation of Central and Western North Carolina, go to www.ncwish.org. The nonprofit holds its annual Wish Ball black-tie fundraising gala at 7 p.m. Jan. 21 at the Westin Charlotte on South College Street. Individual tickets are $250. For ball details: www.ncwishball.org.