Make-A-Wish Foundation celebrates a milestone

On Saturday, it will be exactly 20 years since a six-year-old from Miami Springs wished for and received a treehouse in his backyard. It was painted purple, had the owner’s name on the door, and came with a giant sandbox.

While this may not seem like much of a milestone, let alone one that would be remembered two decades later, it was actually a life-changing event for Michael Fernandez, his family, and an organization determined to make a positive difference in the lives of sick children.

As Make-A-Wish Southern Florida celebrates its 30th anniversary of granting wishes to local kids who have life-threatening medical conditions, we can take stock of our impact by looking back at where we’ve been, and on the people who’ve experienced “the power of a wish.”

In 1994, Fernandez was a little boy struggling with Cystic Fibrosis. Like all the children we serve, he was asked if he could have anything, meet anyone, go anywhere, or be anything, what would he choose?

“I was in the backseat of my parents’ car when I decided on the treehouse,” said Fernandez, now an adult working in the Doral area. “It had to be painted the same color as ‘Barney,’ the dinosaur I watched on TV, and big enough inside to play games and have sleepovers.”

The wish, the 1,000th granted in our chapter’s history, continues to resonate today. “I still have the sign (‘Michael’s Wish’) from, and key to, the front door. More importantly, however, was how the experience positively affected my family and brought us together at a particularly difficult time in our lives,” said Fernandez. (To learn more, go to http://tinyurl.com/treehousewish ).

For the 999 children who came before and the nearly 9,000 who have come after Fernandez, having a wish fulfilled was a much needed respite from hospitals, doctors, treatments, and the health issues that threaten their lives. The same holds true for the moms, dads, brothers and sisters whose worlds have also been turned upside-down by illness. That’s why the entire family is included in the wish experience, whether that means traveling to a bucket list location, meeting a celebrity, or becoming a superhero, as “Striker Boy” and his brother, “Falcon Boy,” recently did in Broward County.

We’re now granting more than 500 wishes each year — that’s one every 16 hours — but want to do more. While reaching about 75 percent of medically-eligible children with our services is something we’re proud of, the goal is to grant a wish for every child in our territory (13 Southern Florida counties and the U.S. Virgin Islands) who qualifies.

That’s why we’re hoping the South Florida community can help further the Make-A-Wish mission. By referring children who might be wish candidates, becoming a volunteer, or attending events like the InterContinental Miami Make-a-Wish Ball in November, you provide us the necessary ingredients to make dreams come true.

We’ve come a long way since Todd’s wish for a computer became our first 30 years ago. What began as a project of the Plantation Junior Women’s Club and granted two wishes in its first year — one every 180 days — has become an organization that has seen its kids meet popes and presidents, become supermodels, and have experiences beyond their wildest dreams. We’ve shed tears with families in mourning and heard from many more that the wish was a positive turning point in their battle against disease. “Wish kids” have become “wish granters” as adults, relating to a sick child as only someone who has been there themselves can. My friend, Jill Johns, whose wish was to meet Arsenio Hall in 1992, helps guide our chapter’s efforts today as a member of the Board of Directors.

While we’re proud to look back on 30 years of impact for local kids and families, we’ve also got our sights set firmly on the future. That’s where the next generation of kids like Michael Fernandez will benefit from our special brand of hope, strength, and joy.

Key Biscayne native Michael Ortega is vice president of the Miami-based Ortega Juneau construction company and chair of Make-A-Wish Southern Florida’s Board of Directors.