Since 1986, Make-A-Wish® Iowa has been providing moments of joy and glimmers of hope for families coping with critical illnesses. With 300 volunteers spread across all of the state’s 99 counties, the organization has granted more than 4100 wishes. While COVID has changed the nature of wishes in recent years, the opportunity to look forward to something – and to remember happy times – has remained unchanged.
We spoke with Natalie Brecht and Lexi Konig, the Director of Events and Marketing and Communications Manager, respectively, to learn how Make-A-Wish Iowa has navigated the past two years. We wanted to learn how the wishes they grant have changed, how the community has responded in this time of need, and how DipJar helped make one of their most important annual fundraisers an unprecedented success.
Wishes come in all shapes and sizes and are as unique as the kids making them. In general, though, wishes fall into four categories: to go someplace, to be something, to meet someone, or to have something. In the past, 80 percent of wishes in Iowa were for travel. Over the past two years, there’s been a huge jump in the wish to have something. Shopping sprees, travel trailers, puppies, and golf carts have all made the list in recent times.
Regardless, all wishes have one thing in common: an opportunity for hope, strength, and joy.
The pair told a story of a medical professional whose job was to deal with many of the most difficult cases. Often, there was nothing she could do for a child and so she would have to give a family the terrible news. It is harrowing and heartbreaking work.
When this doctor learned about Make-A-Wish and began referring children for wishes, she saw it was making a difference in patients’ lives. It gave them – and their families – something to look forward to besides the next appointment, the next test, or the next procedure. It created opportunities for them to be a family and to create memories to share and hold onto.
We heard about some of those memories when we asked about favorite wishes. Lexi told us about Ben, a 12-year-old who had originally asked for a trip to Italy with his family. As travel restrictions due to COVID-19 went into effect, Ben, his family, and his Wish Manager made alternate plans. Ben decided he’d love a custom playhouse – a “dragon’s lair” – in his backyard.
The Weitz Construction Company answered the call and, working with Ben, designed and built the playhouse. Reviewing plans and blueprints, selecting materials and decorations (including a huge dragon’s head!), and “supervising” construction brought a sense of happy anticipation and accomplishment for Ben as his wish became reality.
Ben invited his friends and family, teachers and principal, and church members, to the grand unveiling. He excitedly showed everyone all the cool features – including a cereal bar – that his new dragon’s lair included. Ben and his friends are already planning sleepovers once the warm weather returns.
Natalie told us she has actually been a wish granter on two occasions but said she can only do it once in a while because it can be such an intense and emotional experience. “It takes a really special person to be able to grant wishes,” she said. One of Natalie’s fondest memories of a wish (though not one she granted) was a wonderful one that brought together many elements to create a one-of-a-kind experience.
Sheyla, who is eight, wanted to become a superhero: Super Sheyla. Together, Sheyla and the team created her image of a superhero – and just in time! Kill O’Watt, a supervillain, was stealing power all over Des Moines. Super Sheyla raced around the city, trailing Kill O’Watt and restoring power in his wake. The final battle took place at the annual Make-A-Wish Iowa Jolly Holiday Lights, the organization’s largest annual fundraiser.
Kill O’Watt was keeping the lights off, but Super Sheyla was finally able to defeat him. She restored the power just in time for the opening of the Jolly Holiday Lights! She saved the day!
Just as Make-A-Wish Iowa supports the community, so the community has come through in support of the organization. As we have seen again and again in speaking with nonprofits around the country, difficult times have spurred greater generosity – and that has certainly been the case in Iowa. In 2021, Make-A-Wish Iowa received its largest single contribution: a $1.95 donation from the Gerdin Charitable Foundation, which will help fund 50 wishes each year for the next three years.
While in-person events became more difficult over the past few years, Jolly Holiday Lights proved to be the perfect socially-distanced fundraiser. Jolly Holiday Lights have been a Des Moines tradition for more than 26 years.
In 2020, more than 30,000 vehicles winded their way through the amazing lightscape, raising enough money to grant 90 wishes. As effective as it was, there were challenges – most notably in trying to collect payment information as people prepared to enter the event. Solving this problem is where DipJar played an important role.
Make-A-Wish Iowa purchased its first DipJar just before the pandemic. The intention was to use the devices during events and in the community. Obviously, that didn’t happen; but as the team considered how to improve the flow for the Jolly Holiday Lights, they realized the DipJars could be the solution.
They set their DipJars to $25 – the admission price for a car. For limos, the fee was $50 or two dips. Finally, for buses, the fee of $75 took three quick dips. The flow through the exhibit was improved and donations swelled. In 2021, the DipJars were used to raise almost $70,000 during a wind-shortened (don’t ask!) Jolly Holiday Lights event.
At DipJar, we’re always moved when we learn of the ways our work is helping organizations like Make-A-Wish Iowa. They provide so much hope and joy for families facing difficult times – creating memories that will last a lifetime.
“Even decades later,” Natalie said, “you can still see the brightness in people’s eyes when they talk about their wishes.”