Dream job makes wishes come trueGranting wishes is all in a day's work for Danielle LaMarre '89, who recently became development associate at the Make-A-Wish Foundation® of Los Angeles. Whether it's Barbie's Dream House, tickets to the World Series, or a date with a soap opera star, she brings joy to sick children whose lives are tragically short. Her Los Angeles office, one of 82 nationwide, receives about 300 requests a year from children under 18 who have terminal illnesses or life-threatening diseases. Ev ery qualified wish is granted - at an average cost of $2,500 per wish - as soon as the necessary arrangements can be made.
Until last fall, LaMarre was an environmental engineer at Camp Dresser & McKee in Cambridge, Mass., and an after-hours humanitarian. She volunteered with the Society of Women Engineers, the Girl Scouts, and the Hugh O'Brian Youth Foundation, a teen leader ship program. At WPI she was the philanthropy chair for Alpha Gamma Delta and president of the Student Alumni Society. "It just seemed like I was volunteering more and more and getting more out of that than from my paying job," LaMarre says. She found out about the opening at Make-A-Wish through her volunteer contacts, and before you could say "abracadabra," she had loaded up her car and driven to Los Angeles to join the staff of the Wilshire Boulevard office.
Despite the glitter of Tinseltown and the lavish nature of her work, LaMarre had to adjust to a tiny cubicle at a nonprofit organization. The agency's small staff relies on volunteer support and in-kind donations for its own operations. "If the copier or the computer breaks down, it's up to you to fix it," she says. "You work so hard to get things done, but it has such an immediate impact on humanity and the real world."
Often the work of procuring a Shetland pony or booking lunch with a movie star must be done quickly, while the child is still well enough to enjoy it. Once a referral is made, the doctor is consulted about that child's physical limitations and prognosis. Then a "wish team" of volunteers visits the family and discusses the wish privately with the child, to ensure that it is his or her true desire, not something the parents are spearheading.
The Make-A-Wish staff and volunteers might work for months on a large or unusual wish, locating a donor, asking a trucking company to offer free shipping, and making travel arrangements with airlines that contribute tickets. Routine requests, such as toys , VCRs or computers, are relatively easy to fulfill. A child's simple wish for a new red wagon might turn into a day of surprises, beginning with a limousine ride to Toys R Us for a shopping spree, and ending with a gala party at McDonald's.
"These kids are not just being selfish," says LaMarre. "Often the wish has real meaning for them." One child who was facing an amputation asked for a last walk on the beach, and was granted an expense-paid trip to Hawaii. LaMarre was surprised at a 4-year -old's request for a live performance by the "The Three Tenors"—Luciano Pavarotti, Placido Domingo and José Carreras—until she found out that the child listened to their music to sustain her through painful treatments. Disney World is by far the most popu lar destination: 50 percent of the children ask to go there, and the resort provides specially equipped accommodations for them.
Doctors say that the program has physical as well as emotional benefits. The anticipation of a wish can make patients stronger, says LaMarre, and sometimes their lab work shows improvement after a vacation from the medical environment. Make-A-Wish covers expenses for the whole family to make a trip together, including lost pay for working parents. The experience can be priceless for very young children, who may have been in the hospital for so long that they can't remember anything else. Just getting to s leep in a big hotel bed in the arms of her siblings was a special treat for one child.
LaMarre's responsibilities include fund raising, public speaking, grant writing, and publishing a newsletter. Perhaps her favorite duty is hosting celebrities at benefit events. Since her move to LA, she hasn't met many famous people, she says. "Wait a mi nute, I met Hillary Clinton last night," she recalls, describing a benefit for Children's Hospital. But it's not the glamour of her job that keeps her going.
"I had this fear at first, that if I was getting paid, my efforts wouldn't be as fulfilling as when I was a volunteer," LaMarre says. But that wasn't the case. "Every day I wake up and I'm so happy to have this job. I can't believe I get paid to do this."
-- Joan Killough-Miller
To find the Make-A-Wish chapter nearest you, call 800-722-WISH (800-722-9474). There are many volunteer opportunities, including providing technical support for the office software systems and setting up home computers for Wish children.
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