Zach Wajda has spent much of his 20 years preparing for or recovering from heart surgeries and working hard to overcome the delays caused by Costello Syndrome. This rare disorder attacks body systems causing both growth and developmental delays.
But last month, Zach was an ecstatic kid who was having his dream come true. Thanks to A Special Wish Foundation, Zach attended a Pittsburgh Pirates game with friends and family, met the team, toured the stadium and threw out the first pitch. For someone who has idolized the Pirates team since he fell in love with the game of baseball when he was just 4 years old, this was better than winning the lottery.
His mother Sheila recalls all the times he has wanted to play sports but couldn’t. “He has always been a sports enthusiast. He was an honorary team member in high school and helped the teams, but his heart condition means that he will never get to play.”
This once-in-a-lifetime opportunity was made possible by Alicia Freeman, executive director, and the volunteer board members of A Special Wish Foundation-Upper Ohio Valley Chapter. This is the largest wish-granting entity in the state of Ohio and the third largest in the country. There are nine chapters in Ohio and one in Chicago.
A Special Wish Foundation began in 1982 in Columbus by Ramona Fickle because she saw a lack of services to children with serious diagnoses. They grant wishes to infants, children and adolescents up to age 21 with life-threatening conditions. Dr. John Maddox brought the program to the Ohio Valley in 1992. The local chapter, the largest of the nine Ohio chapters, serves children and their families in Ohio, Marshall, Brooke and Hancock counties in West Virginia and Belmont, Jefferson, Harrison and Monroe counties in Ohio.
The wishes generally fall into one of three categories. A Special Gift would include computers, video games or even a pet. Nine-year-old Jordan from Moundsville recently received a room makeover. He now has his own “sensory room.” The room can stimulate his nervous system and eyesight that has suffered from the effects of cerebral palsy, epilepsy and visual impairments. It also included elements to help him relax at the end of the day and promote better quality sleep.
A Special Place is what Zach experienced. Although Disney is the most popular wish and has been granted three times just this year in the Ohio Valley, some kids prefer sports parks, theme parks or to visit with family members who live far away. Recently, a 3-year-old was sent to visit his grandparents who live in Florida after recovering from open-heart surgery.
Finally, some kids want to meet a special hero. The Wheeling Police Department has helped by making kids Officers for a Day, and the Wheeling Nailers love to have special guests attend games. Some children have met superheroes, musicians, actors and princesses.
The foundation wants to help children and families who have been consumed by the details of a catastrophic diagnosis create lasting and happy memories. Families are often referred to the program by others who have received a wish in the past. Sometimes they hear about the program through media coverage, social media or fundraising events.
In the case of Zach, his uncle, Jags Huggins, is a radio DJ and mentioned him on air one day. Alicia’s husband was listening and knew immediately that they had found a kid who may qualify for a wish to be granted. They called the radio station to track down the family so they could begin the process. Within a month, Zach was beaming in a brand new Pirates hat donated by the employees of Lids at the Ohio Valley Mall, ready to make his debut from the pitcher’s mound.
The average cost of granting a wish is $5,000. This is paid for by fundraising events, personal and corporate donations and grants the organization applies for. The local corporate sponsors are Hoagy’s Heroes, Belmont Savings Bank, Home Savings Bank and the Goodman Group. All the money raised in the Ohio Valley stays within this community for granting wishes to local children. In addition, 98 percent of money raised goes toward granting wishes.
Until 2017, the Ohio Valley chapter was run completely by a volunteer board. Dedicated people like board president Denise Penz, saw a greater need and wanted to be able to “make an impact because some wishes can’t wait.” There was a restructuring, and the search for an executive director began.
Freeman, who was a volunteer board member at the time, went to a meeting in Columbus last summer and heard other executive directors speak about the way their position was able to impact families. When the local chapter asked her to become the first full-time director, she was honored to agree. She took the leap of faith that God had prepared her for this job. She quit her job with a local business and has not regretted one day. “It’s the best thing I’ve ever done,” she gushes.
This allows the organization to be more focused on their mission of fulfilling wishes. Shelly Thomas, a member of the advisory board, was asked to help grant one wish about a year ago. “It touched me and made me want to be more involved,” she recalls. She especially enjoys granting several of a child’s wishes. Often the children have several small additional wishes that don’t require money, only connections. A Special Wish loves to bring these “Sparkles of Joy” to the kids and their families.
They find the resources to sparkle a little extra joy into their lives. For instance, Zach also wanted to meet someone from the Food Network so the wish reveal was planned at Vagabond Kitchen, where he could talk to Matt Welsch, local star of “Guy’s Grocery Games.”
Wishes are not just for the ill child. The whole family is affected when a child has a serious diagnosis. To recognize the siblings who often struggle with the effects of having a sick brother or sister, A Special Wish also grants siblings Sparkles of Joy.
Tina’s Sweet Celebrations in Martins Ferry creates a Special Wish Angel Cake for Special Wish recipients and their siblings on their birthdays. Just in August, the brother of a wish recipient was honored with a Special Wish Angel Cake in the shape of a fidget spinner, one of his favorite things.
Often siblings are granted small wishes of their own. A Special Wish built an indoor swimming pool for a child who is unable to play outside. His sibling loves to dance and was offered classes through Oglebay Institute and a featured role in one of the stage productions. These activities give some sparkle of love to siblings.
A successful non-profit needs community support. Board member Annmarie O’Grady helps make decisions on fundraising activities and loves the way the Ohio Valley supports vulnerable kids and families. “These kids deal with so much on a regular basis. It’s wonderful that we can let them just be happy for a while.”
The next fundraiser for A Special Wish Foundation is Tailgate for Wishes on Wednesday, Sept. 12, at the Belmont Savings Bank in St. Clairsville. Chambers of Commerce of Wheeling, St. Clairsville and Marshall County are working together with Belmont Savings Bank to grant more wishes to Ohio Valley children. To help a kid whose wish can’t wait, plan to attend the fundraiser or donate through the website: www.spwishov.org.
• Stacey Sacco is a Wheeling native currently living in Martins Ferry with her husband and four children. She graduated with a bachelor’s degree in social work and previously worked for several social service agencies. She is currently the production editor for InWheeling Magazine and a blogger at OV Parent.