Dreams do come true
Make-A-Wish Ireland is a charitable organisation which grants wishes to terminally ill children
“It’s a complete privilege to work for this organisation. Every time I’m asked to speak at an event or to sit down and tell someone, you can just see their face light up,” says Susan O’Dwyer, Chief Executive of Make-A-Wish Ireland.
The non-profit organisation began in the United States in 1980 when then seven year-old Christopher James Greicius dreamt of becoming a police officer. His dream was made possible shortly before he died from leukaemia, thanks to the help of a family friend named Tommy Austin. Today Make-A-Wish operates in 45 countries all over the world, granting wishes to children - aged between three and 17 years-old - with life-threatening medical conditions on a daily basis.
“We never maintain that we can make a child healthy, but what we can do and what every child deserves is to be happy,” Susan says. “When a child wishes to be a mermaid or a fireman, to have a family holiday, or to go on a shopping spree with their friends because she’s been in hospital for so long she hasn’t had any quality time with her pals; we make that happen.”
As CEO of the organisation, a key part of Susan’s role in managing the team is ensuring the charity remains compliant. Giving people the peace of mind that their hard-earned money is being well spent, is very important to her.
“We were one of the first charities to sign up to what’s known as the Triple Lock and that’s to ensure that the general public know that the charity is well governed, well run and that they will then understand we’re using their money in the best possible way. So that’s a huge focus for me,” she says.
Susan gives the impression that she and her colleagues very much work together to make the charity successful and things such as titles or a hierarchy system, don’t come into play when a job needs to be done. “No two days are the same here; from my point of view, yes, my title is CEO but a few weeks ago there was a blocked toilet and I was in there with my rubber gloves trying to sort it out,” Susan says. “It’s a team here and we share ideas, I’m out collecting with them on Wish Day, there’s that sense of camaraderie.”
Knowing that Make-A-Wish is having such a positive impact in the lives of not only the sick children but also their families makes the job completely worthwhile for Susan, or as she says, “it’s a reason to get up every morning.” Even though a large portion of Susan’s job involves planning and the day-to-day running of the business, she genuinely enjoys hearing from the people they have helped.
“We get letters back in from families saying, ‘you gave us back our child’ or ‘we became a normal family.’ I suppose that’s what I try desperately to cling to as well because, as CEO, I can get very heavily involved in the strategy and ensuring the donors know where money is going, but I love to hear more about the stories. I stop down to fundraising on a regular basis and every staff meeting we have is opened with another story, so we hear what we’re all about.”
The charity is perhaps most notable for its large number of celebrity ambassadors, both here in Ireland and all over the world. Susan explains that if they don’t have a contact for a particular celebrity in the Irish office, Make-A-Wish branches pool their resources together to make each wish a reality.
“We’ve an office in the States where we can go to and say, ‘Look here are the next five celebrity wishes we have.’ So if we don’t have direct contact with them, this division can and that’s where the link with the international organisation does help,” Susan says. “None of our ambassadors charge us for anything they do, they’re incredible. Anyone we’ve ever asked to become an ambassador, the answer is always yes. I think it’s because of the children, they trust Make-A-Wish and they trust what we’re doing.”
Due to the nature of the role, it seems almost necessary not to get too emotionally involved in each and every story. Although Susan admits that sometimes this is easier said than done and it’s difficult not to be affected every so often.
“I won’t lie, there have been times that I’ve been upset in the office. There have been times that just about every one of us has cried. There have been times when I would have been concerned about the team because we might have lost some children and we would have got to know the families or whatever and that can bring you down. “But this is an incredible team; everybody treats our wishes as though they’re our first. e same passion and drive goes in.”
Seeing and hearing about families who are going through terrible times allows for a sense of perspective and this has been a huge benefit to Susan and her family.
“I have a 23-year-old, two cats, two dogs and a husband, there you go that’s everybody [laughs]. I remember when I started here first, I went home there was a whinge about something and I turned around and said, ‘Listen guys, we have no idea how lucky we are. This whinge is nothing compared to what our wish families are dealing with.’ No, I don’t completely park it, but you sort of have to, to keep yourself sane. It does make you realise how lucky you are. It also makes you realise just how incredible these families are. I mean they are dealing with a lot of difficulty for a long period of time. ere may be siblings in the family and mum and dad still want that family to feel like one and they drive forward.”
The generosity and kindness of people who donate to Make-A-Wish continues to surprise Susan and she recalls a phone call she had from a young girl who wanted to hold a bake sale in her school to raise money.
“At heart I’m a real fundraiser, that’s been my background for over 20 odd years. I still remember a teacher ringing me one day and she said, ‘There’s a little girl who would like to talk to you. She’s a bit nervous because she’s speaking to the CEO’ and I said, ‘We don’t believe in any of that nonsense here, put her on.’ As soon as she gets on the phone she said they were organising a bake sale and that she wanted to know what the rules were. They managed to raise €900; now that’s all the mums who had gone out and baked and the kids sold all these cakes themselves.”
Susan is adamant that there is no such thing as a donation that is too small and every contribution is welcomed. “It’s a question of cash flow; it’s always on my mind every day, week or month. Whether it’s €20 from someone who has been touched by a wish child or whether it’s €100,000 that has come in through a partnership, because we get no government funding, every single cent counts. It means that I can then turn around to our wish banking manager and go ‘Knock your socks off, keep going with the wishes.’”
For more information on Make-A-Wish Ireland or to make a donation, visit www.makeawish.ie