The Make-A-Wish Foundation is on the lookout for sick children in the Tampa Bay area who need a once-in-a-lifetime pick-me-up.
The national nonprofit's Southern Florida chapter has grown geographically and is now responsible for Tampa Bay and Sarasota as well as its existing coverage areas in Naples, Fort Myers and the region spanning from Palm Beach to Miami.
That's good news for Tampa Bay. The Make-A-Wish Southern Florida chapter is one of the most active chapters in the country for the organization, which grants "wishes" to children with critical illnesses and their families. The chapter, founded in 1983, has granted 11,000 wishes to children since it started and is on track to grant 600 or more wishes next year with its expanded reach, said chief operating officer Richard Kelly. That's nearly one wish every 16 hours, he said.
"We're one of only five chapters in the country, or the world, to grant 11,000 wishes," Kelly said in a phone interview.
Another measure of success is "wish penetration," the ratio of wishes granted to requests received, Kelly said. "Our wish penetration is historically in the 80 to 85 percent range, which is well above the national average in the 55 to 60 percent range."
The Southern Florida chapter took over the Tampa Bay region on Sept. 1 through a corporate restructuring. Make-A-Wish has a North-Central Florida chapter that used to oversee the Tampa Bay area, but it will now focus on the Northeast area of the state, Orlando and the Panhandle. That chapter grants about 250 to 300 wishes a year.
South Florida granted 470 last year, before it expanded into Tampa Bay. But the challenge ahead is finding Tampa Bay area children in need, Kelly said.
"Referrals are our top priority. Everything falls into place after that," he said.
The organization hired a full-time employee to oversee the Tampa Bay, Sarasota, Fort Myers and Naples areas. Chapter staff members have already met with executives and doctors from Johns Hopkins All Children's Hospital and others in the region, Kelly said.
"Eighty percent of children are referred by medical professionals, which can be doctors, nurses, social workers, physical therapists," he said. "And 20 percent come to us from parents or the children themselves."
Kelly says the goal is to make inroads with medical organizations large and small in the Tampa Bay area to find children and families in need who can benefit from their services.
In March, the Southern Florida chapter granted its 11,000th wish when it helped a family purchase a horse for a 14-year-old girl diagnosed with osteosarcoma, a cancer that starts in bones. Her dream was to own one.
Another child, a 15-year-old with a congenital cardiac condition in South Florida, got to meet Justin Bieber through Make-A-Wish.
Another goal, Kelly said, is to make clear to the public the organization's mission.
"There's this misperception out there that Make-A-Wish is for a child's last or dying wish, like we're the grim reaper, which is not true," Kelly said. "People think that by referring their child, it's an admission of their soon-to-be death.
"So part of what we do is educational. A lot of the children we help go on to live long lives. But we provide a sense of hope and a momentary relief for the child and their family, which we think helps them to heal emotionally."
Contact Justine Griffin at email@example.com or (727) 893-8467. Follow @SunBizGriffin.
Referring a child to Make-A-Wish
To be eligible, a child must have a life-threatening medical condition and must be 2.5 to 18 years old at the time of referral. A physician must confirm the child's condition and the child must not have been granted a wish from another chapter. Visit: sfla.wish.org/refer-a-child or call (888) 773-9474.
What kids can wish for
• Wishes fall into four categories: "I wish to be" (something), "I wish to meet" (someone), "I wish to go" (somewhere), and "I wish to have" (something).
• Walt Disney World is the most popular request, followed by domestic/international travel, cruises, shopping sprees and meeting a celebrity.
• The average cost of a wish is $5,000-$8,000, depending on location.
Source: Make-A-Wish Foundation, Southern Florida chapter