Leadership Conversations: Make-A-Wish

by in CustomerCase Study, Industry, People

headshot of Kathrin Brewer, President and CEO of Make-A-Wish Central and South Texas
Kathrin Brewer, President and CEO of Make-A-Wish Central & South Texas

In 1980, Christopher James Greicius, a 7-year-old boy battling leukemia, had a particular goal — becoming a police officer. In response, his friends, family, and community in Phoenix, Arizona, came together to make his wish come true, while simultaneously giving birth to a worldwide movement that has since touched millions of lives.

Today, Make-A-Wish Foundation’s stated mission is to “create life-changing wishes for children with critical illnesses.” The organization, which operates across North American and in nearly 50 countries on five continents, boasts an impressive volunteer network of more than 45,000 individuals who collectively have granted almost 500,000 wishes worldwide since its founding, making it the largest wish-granting organization in the world.

Those who work with Make-A-Wish or ‘wish kids’ that benefit from its mission attest to the emotional impact and resonance each wish carries for the individuals, families, and communities who get involved. But the effect of Make-A-Wish is felt well beyond the wish experience itself. A 2011-2013 ‘Wish Impact Study’ highlighted significant mental health benefits for both wish kids and their immediate families, including:

  • 97% of adult, former wish kids say they experienced improved mental and emotional health.
  • 89% of medical professionals say they believe that the wish experience can influence wish kids’ physical health.
  • 75% of health professionals observed that the wish experience decreased their patient’s depression or sadness.

Like many nonprofit organizations, Make-A-Wish now finds itself battling new challenges introduced by COVID-19, which has caused the organization to find new methods of supporting both wish kids and their families remotely due to social distancing guidelines and safety measures meant to protect at-risk individuals already fighting other serious illnesses. 

Recently, I spoke with Kathrin Brewer, President and CEO of Make-A-Wish Central and South Texas, and Shelby Gill, Director of Communications and Development Operations, to better understand how their chapter — one of the nation’s largest — is coping with these new challenges and innovating to continue supporting the organization’s mission.

Transcript:  

Note: Transcript has been edited for clarity

John Yarbrough: 
Hi, everyone. It’s John from Lifesize here again for another edition of our Leadership Conversation series. With me today, I have two special guests, Kathrin Brewer, President and CEO for Make-A-Wish Central & South Texas chapter, as well as Shelby Gill, Director of Communications and Development Operations. Kathrin, Shelby, how are you both doing this morning? 

Kathrin Brewer: 

Good, thank you. It’s a beautiful day again. 

Shelby Gill: 
Yeah, doing well. 

John Yarbrough: 
Make-A-Wish is an incredible organization that many of us are familiar with and have heard something about. But, for those in the audience that maybe aren’t familiar with your mission, Kathrin, what can you share with them about what Make-A-Wish does in our local communities? 

Kathrin Brewer: 
Sure. Thanks, John, and thanks for having us here. We grant wishes to children who are dealing with critical illnesses. An important part of our mission is to enrich the human condition with hope, strength, and joy. 

John Yarbrough: 
Thank you. Shelby, in your role as director of communications and development operations, what does your day to day look like?

Shelby Gill: 
I would say my favorite part of my job is the storytelling aspect. We have the opportunity to tell pretty amazing stories about these children and give them a platform to tell their own stories. That’s a part of my job that I really love. Outside of that, I oversee all of the systems behind fundraising, so the stewardship and all of the feel-good stuff that goes along with raising money to help grant wishes. 

John Yarbrough: 
Kathrin, looking back in time, maybe into the fall of last year, you’re president and CEO of a local [Make-A-Wish] chapter that spans Central and South Texas. That’s a lot of territory [to cover]. What can you share with us about what your normal day looks like?

Kathrin Brewer: 
It’s really interesting -- what you bring up about territory is very central to our operations. We have offices in Austin and San Antonio, and we have another volunteer chapter in Laredo. We grant wishes from Killeen to Laredo. It’s 300 a year, so that’s almost one a day. We have to span this area not only for our Wish families and Wish children -- our staff and our volunteers are working 42 counties and going into homes to do Wish interviews. And then, our Board Members, who are very busy professionals, gather to meet once a month in both San Antonio and Austin, and some travel between cities for the meetings. 

John Yarbrough: 
Kathrin, after it became clear that the coronavirus was going to be disruptive — many of us have been sent home now and have been self-isolating and working remotely for going on two months — how did things change for the Make-A-Wish team? 

Kathrin Brewer: 
You know, John, it was really incredible. On Wednesday, March 10th, we had our morning staff meeting. We said, “Hey, let’s do an at-home meeting so that we can test out working from home.” Somebody said, “Well, how about next week?” I said, “Well, how about tomorrow morning?” We actually held a Lifesize meeting the next morning from home. It worked so well that everybody just came in and got their stuff. By Friday, we were working from home and just didn’t miss a beat. It was really incredible. 

John Yarbrough: 
Okay, that’s great to hear. Shelby, can you speak a little bit more about what this virtual Wish fulfillment process has been like for you? Obviously, that’s a big departure from how this process has worked in the past. But, how seamless has it been? Has this been something that the team has responded to favorably?

Shelby Gill: 
One of the most important parts of the wish is the initial Wish interview where the kids begin to brainstorm and think about what their one true wish is. And so, we wanted to make that process still really special, but obviously deliver it in a really safe format, which is currently via Lifesize. 

We launched our first round of virtual Wish interviews about two weeks ago. Yesterday [May 5], it was Giving Tuesday Now, which is one of the largest days of donation to help with COVID relief. One of our Wish-granting volunteers wrote this comment on Facebook, “Yesterday, I conducted my first virtual Wish interview for Make-A-Wish Central and South Texas. While it wasn’t the same as being in person, I’m so impressed with the organization’s ability to set up the infrastructure for virtual interviews so that Abigail can get one step closer to her wish despite these challenging times. Please consider supporting Make-A-Wish today.” 

I think it’s just amazing to see that is still something really special and resonates with our Wish-granting volunteers. They feel comfortable in this format to still provide a really magical and special interview for these kids. 

John Yarbrough: 
It’s amazing to hear what you’re continuing to do in communities supporting families in need, in spite of all the logistical challenges that many of us are struggling with right now. 

Kathrin, you regularly work with families that are going through hardship. I would imagine for many of them, this is an incredibly stressful time. What can you share about your experience speaking with these families? What are they going through? What are their concerns, and how is Make-A-Wish supporting them? 

Kathrin Brewer: 
They are dealing with the same substantial question that we do now in having our lives threatened. They’re dealing with the economic issues that we see in terms of people losing their jobs or having their wages cut. Our families also have to take time off to take care of their children, and in that case, do suffer economic hardship -- and have medical bills on top of that. 

Secondly, just the isolation, I think, is something that we can all identify with now. Our families often have to be alone, either just to take care of medical issues or actually because of sensitivities in being medically fragile. Now, we’re dealing with that as well. Personally, I can feel it. I was really enjoying having a job, being healthy and safe, and enjoying the spring. Now, I find the isolation is wearing on me. I’m becoming touchier and that sort of thing. I don’t know if everybody’s feeling that, but I think now we can identify in a small bit with what our families are going through every day. They [experience it] 10x, and that’s really where now we can begin to imagine what it’s like to be a family with a critically ill child. 

John Yarbrough: 
Shelby, Make-A-Wish, for many of us, embodies hope. It embodies positivity. It’s the shining light in periods of darkness. I would imagine, given what Kathrin just described, we’re all experiencing these periods of isolation differently. But at the same time, the organization itself is spreading this message of hope. How does your team balance what we are going through personally while continuing to fulfill the broader mission of the organization? 

Shelby Gill: 

I think we’ve really approached just the transition from working in an office to working at home with a lot of empathy for our staff. I’ve been pretty amazed at just the energy around wanting to continue to grant wishes and to be even more effective. I think, in ways, we’ve gotten stronger in collaboration with our San Antonio office. We had a meeting recently where our district director of San Antonio mentioned that she had never felt like we had collaborated this well before and that this COVID and us all really relying on digital communication. The way our San Antonio office relies on it to speak with us had really strengthened our team. 

Additionally, we’ve worked with our national office to create a ‘messages of hope’ campaign. It’s been really amazing to see members of our community, our donors, our volunteers and our Wish kids sending out messages of hope to the broader community and giving advice on how to cope with difficult times. All of our staff have participated in that campaign, so it’s been really beautiful, I think, to see the community that’s come out of all of this. 

John Yarbrough: 
Kathrin, from your perspective, why is it that wishes are so impactful and why do they resonate the way that they do? 

Kathrin Brewer: 
I don’t want to get too technical, but there’s actually a lot of research behind [granting wishes] that shows that the two best ways to increase your personal mental health are to help others or to take a trip. When we experience our Wish kids challenges, when we get to be personally involved in a wish, and then we get to experience their joy, our mirror neurons actually help us as well. What happens, there’s actually a physiological response that when we’re happy, our oxytocin and serotonin go up and our adrenaline goes down. Our blood rushes back to our organs and it tells them that it’s time to heal. It rushes through our skin. You see when people are under stress, their skin ages because the blood’s not going to their skin, it’s going to their muscles for fight and flight. Our kids are actually healing us when we grant them a wish. It’s pretty amazing. 

John Yarbrough: 
That is amazing. That is helpful to understand why it feels so good to see these stories in hope. Kathrin, can you speak to any of the unexpected benefits of now fulfilling wishes in a virtual setting? Has that changed the way that you’re able to allow other participants to take part in the experience that you provide to these families? 

Kathrin Brewer: 
Absolutely. As I said, our mission is to enrich the human condition with hope, strength and joy. Now, instead of just the people who are physically present at the wish granting, we’re able to have our whole community of friends and family participate and experience that same emotional lift that we get when we know that we’ve made it such a profound difference for a child. 

John Yarbrough: 
That’s amazing. Shelby, one final question for you. As somebody that’s working in communities, working with donors, working with families, how can individuals support nonprofits right now? What are some tangible things that people can do to support the mission of Make-A-Wish, as well as other organizations that are doing this incredibly important work in our communities? 

Shelby Gill: 
We’re working at a local level and at a national level of really sharing our wishes in a more digital format. I would say number one, engage with us online and share. I think, so often, people don’t understand the full scope of the mission of Make-A-Wish and that most of our kids go on to live happy and healthy lives. It’s really important. The wish is seen as part of the healing process, so I think the more that we’re able to share that story, the broader reach we have. 

I know it’s a difficult time for everyone, and so with donations, I think that’s a gray area right now. But, continuing to support nonprofits where you can, we’re all trying to continue operations to the best of our ability. Every donation helps us grant more wishes during this really difficult time. We really believe that children with critical illnesses deserve a childhood and deserve these moments of hope even in the darkest of times. 

John Yarbrough: 
Well, as a father, I can’t state how much I think the work that you do in our communities matters and how impactful it is to me personally. Kathrin, from your perspective, what are some tangible things that people can do to support the mission of Make-A-Wish and other nonprofits right now? 

Kathrin Brewer: 
Thank you for asking that. It’s important to know that 85% of our wishes were travel-related, and so those are on hold right now. But, the other 15% are what we call ‘to-have,’ [in other words] to have an outdoor play area for children who are medically fragile, to have an indoor music studio or some sort of computer technology set up. People can help us by helping us support those in-kind wishes with the actual materials, the physical materials or cash to help us buy those materials. Right now, our donations have really been reduced, so it would be really helpful if people could help us supply those in-kind materials. 

John Yarbrough: 
Thank you. I think that’s a great reminder that there are other ways that we can all contribute right now, even if financially, some are not able to. Well, Kathrin and Shelby, thank you again for your time today. Thank you for the amazing work that you and your entire team do in our communities. I appreciate the time. 

Kathrin Brewer: 
Thank you, John.