By RITA KUEBER
This is a story about how a kind, inspired gesture became a worldwide movement. This is a story about how a little boy and his mom make things better for thousands of children and families dealing with a serious, sometimes fatal disease. This is a story about Make-A-Wish.
In February1977, five-year-old Chris Greicius traveled with his mother, Linda Pauling, from a farm in Illinois to Phoenix, Arizona, where Linda planned to assist relatives. Coming off the plane the boy had a nosebleed and follow-up testing indicated Chris had leukemia. For the next two years, Chris and his mom and dad’s lives were filled with doctor’s appointments and hospital stays. While living in Arizona, the family became friends with Tommy Austin, a US Customs Agent. Chris’ imagination was sparked and his greatest desire was to be a police officer.
In April 1980, as Chris’ illness progressed, family and friends worked to make his dream come true somehow. Austin recruited friends in law enforcement and got Chris a police hat and uniform. The boy “drove” a police car and got a helicopter ride over the Phoenix area. “These friends were put in our path for a reason,” Linda says. “They made his dreams come true. These guys just fell in love with this charismatic little boy, and they made it happen.”
Chris was seven at the time, nearly eight, and the experience of being a police officer invigorated him. “He was the boy I hadn’t seen in a while. The energy just came back to him,” Linda says. His wish was granted on April 29, and on May 3 Chris died. His parents buried him in a family cemetery in Illinois. They eventually divorced, remarried other people, and remain friends.
Linda returned to Arizona after the funeral. “After three years of hospitals, and seeing the same sick kids and their parents, it was just so sad. I have no words to describe it,” Linda says. “After his special day, Chris’ very last day came so quickly.” Back home with the same group of people who had made Chris so happy, collectively the group realized they had created a previously unknown precedent to comfort a desperately ill child, as well as the family. Make-a-Wish was born.
In 1980, before the general use of cell phones, before routine access to the Internet, and before computers in every home, the group realized they might be able to pull off this miracle again, and maybe give another sick kid a chance at a lifelong dream.
It took nine months to create a charter and bylaws. “We weren’t a grass-roots organization, more like a bare dirt organization,” Linda recalls. “We went around town telling our story and people remembered Chris. There were collection jars near cash registers and calls from people saying, ‘I’m a lawyer,’ or ‘I’m an accountant and I know how to help’. There were five of us with five different phone numbers working at our kitchen tables and in our living rooms. We had no office, and we started with a bank deposit of $37.76,” she says.
The first official wish went to a boy named Bobsy, a patient recommended by Chris’ doctor. Bobsy wanted to be a fireman, and when the fledgling organization made that happen, the event ignited a media frenzy. Suddenly, the tiny organization was being lauded by ABC’s 20/20 and CBS’s 60 Minutes, plus countless other media outlets not only in the US but from other countries as well.
Within two years, Make-A-Wish was national, and in another year it was international. Today there are 58 chapters in the US, and a chapter in 33 different countries, all more or less using the original charter created by five friends nearly fifty years ago. “We have held up very strongly, and it’s been a lot of fun,” Linda adds. Still a resident of Phoenix, she attends galas and events all over the country and out of the country as needed.
“It’s still a grass-roots organization, even today,” she adds. “We held on to that. We don’t get money from grants or the government, it’s all private donations. I signed my name to those papers in my little studio over 40 years ago. I prayed that this would truly always be an organization for kids, and I’m so happy to say that the people who became involved have held onto those truths and values
“I can’t help but think that Chris was born for this organization,” Linda adds. “Of course, today it’s so different, regarding leukemia. In 1977 it was a death sentence. Only 35 to 50 percent of children survived, and now survival is up to 95 to 98 percent. We’ve come such a long way.”
The Cleveland area is part of Make-A-Wish Ohio, Kentucky & Indiana, which receives referrals from 14 area children’s hospitals. This year the chapter celebrates its 40th anniversary and will grant its 20,000th wish. The Make-A-Wish annual gala takes place on April 21, 2023, at the Hilton Cleveland Downtown. For more information: wish.org/oki/2023-northern-ohio-wish-gala or
Compassion is at the core of every child’s wish granted by Make-A-Wish
By RITA KUEBER