By Jessica Bagley email@example.com
The Tonawanda News
Tonawanda News — Teachers swapped their schoolbooks for sneakers Thursday night to play dodgeball in the Tonawanda district’s annual Make-A-Wish fundraiser that hundreds of residents attended.
The event was one of many that the district hosts throughout the year to raise money for the Make-A-Wish Foundation, which arranges special trips and events for children with life-threatening illnesses.
“The district has been fundraising for Make-A-Wish for more than 10 years,” Make-A-Wish of Western New York Development Manager Mary Hazel said. “They do all sorts of creative things, and last year, they raised $12,000.”
The schools hold a wide variety of fundraisers, including a raffle students can enter to be a principal for a day, spirit weeks and dress-down days. With help from the district and many other organizations, the local chapter of Make-A-Wish grants 150 dreams every year.
The group helps kids like Jacob Fiorella, an 8-year-old from Grand Island who has been diagnosed with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a disease that causes the heart muscle to thicken. Jacob, who attended Thursday’s events, is unable to play sports due to an increased risk of a cardiac event.
“I want to thank everyone here,” he said to the large crowd and dozens of student volunteers at Tonawanda High School. “My wish is coming true next week when I will go on a Disney Cruise and swim with dolphins.”
His mom, Jill, said the trip will allow her family a break from the stresses and doctor visits.
“It’s hard when you have a child that has a condition you can’t do anything about,” she said. “All we want to do is make sure he has the best time ever.”
Kindergarten teacher Susan Heiss started the district’s fundraising efforts 13 years ago after one of her students, who had a severe heart problem, was able to travel to Walt Disney World thanks to Make-A-Wish.
The young girl later lost her battle with the disease, and Heiss wanted to do something in her honor.
“I saw how integral Make-A-Wish was in her life,” she said. “We started fundraising at just one school, but it has become a community event. It just grew, and grew and grew.”
Fletcher Principal John McKenna, who also helps with the Make-A-Wish events, credited Heiss for her work.
“She is the backbone of what we do. She is the heart and soul,” he said.
Both McKenna and Heiss said the fundraising projects help them teach the students about empathy and compassion.
“We’ve helped so many children, but we get back so much more than we give. I can’t stress enough how much of a win-win this is,” he said.
Contact reporter Jessica Bagley at 693-1000 ext. 4150, or follow her on Twitter @JessicaLBagley.