Charity delivers wishes for kids
When Hurricane Charley tore through Southwest Florida five years ago this week it wreaked havoc upon much of Cape Coral. Amid the damaged roofs, stripped-bare trees and disrupted lives Christopher Heinz’s new swing set was ripped apart by the storm.
Christopher, who was diagnosed with leukemia at just over 2 years old, was 8 at the time. The swing set had been a gift from a local organization, called the Wishing Well Foundation, that grants the wishes of children with life-threatening illnesses.
Although part of Cape Coral still bears the scars from Charley, within weeks Christopher’s swing set had been replaced.
What would be the point, Wishing Well Executive Director and co-founder Vicki Torbush said, of granting a child’s wish if something like a storm could just take it away.
“It was the right thing to do,” she said. “It wasn’t their fault it was destroyed.”
Christopher still lives in Cape Coral with his mother, Carol, father Roy and his three brothers.
At 13, he’s grown out of the swing set. Now more into flag football and karate, he lives his life like any other teenager, almost,
“We have to extra careful with some things,” Carol said. “I was worried when he wanted to take karate, because he can’t get hit in the stomach, but his teacher designed a course that he could follow and not get hit there, and now he’s a purple belt.”
Christopher’s health is still an issue. Every two weeks he has a hospital visit to rejuvenate his immune system, but his illness is not the only focus of his life.
“I do pretty much what I want,” he said.
In no small part, Carol said, because of the efforts of Wishing Well.
“An illness like this is difficult on the kids and the parents, but with all that Wishing Well does, he doesn’t have to think all the time about being sick,” she said.
Torbush wouldn’t have it any other way.
Wishing Well foundation, which will celebrate its 14th anniversary in September, was the brainchild of a dedicated group of community volunteers in Naples and Marco Island that became disillusioned with the charity for which they were volunteering.
“We were working with another wish-granting organization but we were disappointed to see that most of the money we raised was going someplace else,” Torbush said.
So relying on their experience and community contacts, Torbush and her troop of volunteers decided to form an organization that keep all the money they raised local and grants the wishes of children in their community.
Christopher, she said, was one of their first recipients.
Another was Madison, a terminally ill 14-year-old Cape Coral girl whose wish was to meet president George W. Bush. However, thanks to Wishing Well, her wish grew to something grander than she could have ever imagined
“On the day she went to meet the President she got a private tour of the White House with the Secret Service and Mr. and Mrs. Bush and had a private tasting with the White House pastry chef,” she said.
Another recipient was a boy from Naples named Eric who wanted to go aboard the U.S.S. Enterprise. After a tour of the country’s largest aircraft carrier, Wishing Well sent him to Bush Gardens with a friend he had made on the ship.
Some other wishes that have been granted in Wishing Well’s 14 years of service to the community are more down to earth.
“Some really popular wishes are are laptops. The kids can take them to hospitals and keep in touch with their friends,” Torbush said. We’ve had a couple of puppy wishes, a lot of kids want to go to Bush Garden, some just want to see snow.”
One of those children was sent to Lake Placid in New York where she had the opportunity to go bobsledding at the site of the 1980 Winter Olympics and ice skate with an Olympic silver medalist.
But unlike some organizations, Torbush said, the relationship with a sick child doesn’t end once a wish is granted.
“That’s one of the ways that we are so different from any other organization that we know of,” she said. “For example, if a child has a relapse, we’ll grant them another, secondary wish.”
Torbush said a child and family is often in shock when they are first diagnosed and may need some time to rethink their wish.
“Sometimes when this happens the families are in shock and feel like they have no sense of control. If they wait six months and they’ve been feeling better for while, they can have another wish,” she said.
Throughout the year, Wishing Well hosts parties and reunions for all the families that have been touched by the group.
“The kids also enjoy getting greeting cards and phone calls. It is also an opportunities for their (parents) to get support and exchange information on things like new treatments.”
The support network was one of the aspects that most appealing to Carol Heinz.
“When your kid is sick, everyone is nice and wants to help. But neighbors don’t know what you are going through. Only another parent who is going through the same thing can really relate,” she said.
Like most charities, Wishing Well has unfortunately fallen on hard times of late, but is especially hard hit since the group has no affiliation with a national organization and has no large fund-raising mechanism and does no telephone solicitation.
Wishing Well also conducts all fund-raising through grassroots efforts.
“We have fund raisers throughout the year but most of our donations come from regular, middle-class working people that want to help,” she said. “People give just $10 or $20. We’ve figured if everyone who was interested just asked five people for $5, the price of a coffee, would could continue to do what we do. If just one business just sponsored an event where they gave 10 percent of the proceeds for one day, it would make a world of difference.”
Wishing Well is planning its next fund raiser, the Club Manager’s Charity Classic golf tournament, for Oct. 18 and 19 at Shadow Wood Preserve in South Fort Myers.
“We’re looking for donations, sponsors and auction items and of course we’re always looking for volunteers,” she said.
Despite the challenges that lay ahead, Torbush is optimistic about the future.
“Even though everyone is suffering in some way, we can all come together and not only survive but thrive,” she said,
For more information on Wishing Well Foundation, to recommend a child or to make a donation or volunteer, please call (239) 213-0397.
“We do a lot with a tiny group of volunteers. Some volunteer a lot and others volunteer when they can or for one or two special events,” she said. The group benefits from the effort of between 100 and 150 volunteers.