By GARY GERARD HAMILTON Associated Press
NEW YORK (AP) — Three-year-old Audrey, who is fighting cancer, had a big wish — to visit Disney World. And thanks to the Make-A-Wish foundation, her dream was set to come true in April.
But then the coronavirus pandemic hit, travel came to a standstill, and Disney World was closed. So now, Audrey and her family are waiting — along with thousands of other Make-A-Wish kids — for the storm to pass so Audrey can eventually make it to see Mickey Mouse and the rest of the Disney universe.
"There's a lot of parts of a cancer battle anyway, so we've learned to adjust expectations and adjust to new news and new realities quickly, so this was just sort of like that" her father Shane told The Associated Press in an interview this week (the Make-A-Wish foundation does not provide last names of its families for privacy concerns).
"We're obviously very excited for whenever we do get to go on the trip."
Make-a-Wish helps ailing kids and teens have a wish granted, such as meeting a celebrity, becoming a VIP at theme parks or traveling to a dream destination. It celebrated its 40th anniversary this week amid perhaps the most challenging time in its history.
"We have now 5,000 of this year's wishes already indefinitely on hold," said Make-A-Wish CEO Richard Davis. "So our kids are patiently waiting, sweet as they are, wondering when their wish will come about. And our job right now is to keep them inspired and excited for when the wish comes, in the meantime, going out and continue to raise funds and support in a window of time when we need the most."
Stay-at-home orders, traveling fears and the cancellation of sporting events, concerts and theme parks have forced the organization to come to a stand-still, leaving young people's requests in holding patterns. Normally, about 16,000 wishes are granted a year, and the 5,000 that are already on hold is expected to increase as the pandemic continues to rage.
With more than 3.8 million laid-off workers applying for unemployment benefits last week, the U.S. economy slid further into a crisis that is becoming the most devastating since the 1930s. Because MAW has corporate partners like Macy's, which has temporarily closed many of its stores and the WWE, which isn't holding live events, the organization is learning to navigate through this new, uncertain reality.
While a strong 2019 holiday season and consistent fundraising the first couple of months of the year have left the non-profit in stable shape, Davis worries what will happen after August when its fiscal year ends. He acknowledges that there may be more pressing organizations dealing with health, food and security that need to be funded now, but he doesn't want his group to be forgotten.
"My biggest concern for Make-A-Wish is we're not the first thing you think about in a situation like the virus," he said. "We want to be the next thing you think about when this starts to settle and people are back to, 'How can I change the world?'"
While the perception may be that the organization is for terminally ill children, nearly 70% of the children make it to adulthood. To date, Make-A-Wish says more than 330,000 wishes have been granted.
Davis says the current wishes are not canceled, but on pause. But some who may not have the luxury of time may have to change their wish.
To keep spirits up, the charity has introduced "Messages of Hope," encouraging the public to record inspiring messages and upload them to social media while tagging Make-A-Wish. They're also relying heavily on celebrities to post, and so far, stars like The Jonas Brothers, Gordon Ramsay, Jojo Siwa, Terry Crews and more have already participated.
Other big names like Ryan Reynolds and DJ Khaled have already personally video called some young people whose wishes were to meet them as part of a "wish enhancement" as they wait, something the charity hadn't explored before. The enhancement for Audrey, who lives in San Diego, included a car-themed parade with her favorite things for her birthday.
"The encouragement really does lift us up, it really does make us feel so loved and encouraged and stronger and ready to fight the next battle, ready to get through the horrible treatment," said Audrey's dad, Shane. "It really does make a difference. It helps the healing process. It helps our souls. It helps our hearts be encouraged."
Although Davis says he has no idea when wish-granting can be resumed, the organization will continue to consult with their advisory board, comprised of many of the nation's top pediatric medical officials, and will be diligent and extra cautious even after local and the federal government says Americans can resume their normal way of life. Until then, he doesn't want anyone forgetting about the magic Make-A-Wish spreads all over the world.
"We're trying to expose our mission as a whole, and the mission of hope we think is essential — it is certainly to those kids."