Tonawanda News

June 21, 2013

A community of wish-makers comes together

By Jill Keppeler
The Tonawanda News

Tonawanda News — It all started with one little girl and one little wish.

Susan Heiss, a teacher at Mullen Elementary School in the City of Tonawanda School District, said the district’s relationship with Make-A-Wish began more than 12 years ago, when the organization touched the life of one of her students.

“I had a student in my class — I taught third grade then — and she had a severe heart problem,” Heiss said. “She was granted a wish ... and it was the greatest thing that had ever happened to her. She talked about it and talked about it all the time. It changed her life.”

The child visited Walt Disney World and met Buffalo Sabre Rob Ray courtesy of the foundation, which grants the wishes of children with life-threatening medical conditions, but eventually lost her medical battles. 

“It was really devastating, and I wanted to do something in her memory, sort of to keep her spirit alive,” Heiss said. “And I knew how much the wish meant to her.”

Years later, the school district’s relationship with Make-A-Wish has grown steadily — as has its contribution to the organization. This year, the district presented $12,000 to Make-A-Wish Metro New York and Western New York, its largest donation yet.

Over the past 12 years, the school and the district have donated an estimated $80,000, enough to make about 11 wishes come true.

Mary Moore-Hazel, Make-A-Wish development manager, said that many school districts contribute, but “No one is on the level of Tonawanda.” 

“To get a whole district involved, and for a whole year ... it’s amazing,” she said. “This is a community rallying together to make wishes happen.”

Heiss said that the campaign started simple, with those at Mullen Elementary selling Make-A-Wish stars. They raised more than $1,000 that first year ... and the contribution has grown each year since. About five or six years ago, after school redistricting took place, it expanded to involve the entire district.

The campaign starts on the first day of school. Teachers donate money for dress-down days. Children sell Make-A-Wish stars and bracelets and contribute money to dress up for Spirit Days with themes such as “Rock Star Day” or “Hippie Day.” Donations are given to try for “Principal For A Day” privileges ... or earn the right to tape the district superintendent to a a wall. There have been school performances, movie nights, game nights. This year, the culminating event was a teacher dodgeball tournament and basket raffle. 

And each year, students are visited by representatives from Make-A-Wish, who explain where the money goes and to whom.

“It teaches them such a valuable lesson about empathy and caring for each other,” Heiss said. “The kids bring in their tooth fairy money, they bring in the change they’re done chores for. When we first started it, never did I think it would take off like this.”

Heiss has had students grow up, graduate and return to visit her, still bringing in donations for Make-A-Wish. The community response, she said, has been “phenomenal.”

“We have the best community in the world,” she said. “Every year they just keep giving. Every year, they’ve been more generous.”

The money donated has helped provide children’s trips to Disney World, Atlantis Resort in the Bahamas, Hawaii or the Grand Canyon, Moore-Hazel said. Other children have met celebrity musicians or played on playgrounds built especially for them.

The wishes help families going through trying times, and children who don’t have much control over what’s happening to them, she said. “We’re empowering that child. Finally they can make a decision about something that’s really good.”

Over the past 12 years, hundreds of children in the district have helped the campaign. On the last day of the 2012-13 school year Thursday, two of them agreed that it’s worth the effort.

“We want to help kids who are in the hospital all the time to get their dream,” said Abigail Opalinksi, 8

Matthew Mysliwy, 7, said the students like knowing that the money they’ve raised is going to help other children.

“It makes me happy,” he said, “to know I made other kids happy.”