Twenty-five years ago, Make-A-Wish Central New York wish-granting volunteers Marilyn Sanson and Deborah “Debbie” Bender, became involved with the organization after their sons embarked on a cross country adventure of a lifetime. Debbie and Marilyn’s sons biked more than 3,000 miles from Seattle to Syracuse to raise funds for Make-A-Wish Central New York. Upon their sons’ return to Syracuse, Debbie and Marilyn, otherwise known as the “dynamic duo,” began volunteering as wish granters and have since granted wishes for more than 113 children throughout the 15 counties served by Make-A-Wish Central New York. Their exemplary work ethic has inspired practices and policies in use today for volunteer training and to ensure each wish is as unique as the children who make them.
Marilyn and Debbie’s experience as wish granters has enriched their understanding of the diverse communities they serve, of changing family dynamics, and of unique interests of the wish kids they serve. Make-A-Wish has provided the duo with access to communities not easily accessible and, with help from hospital employees and social workers, they have scheduled home and hospital visits to better tailor each wish.
One particular community the pair has come to better understand is the Amish community. New York State has the fastest-growing Amish community and fifth largest in the country. “We have dealt with so many different cultures and beliefs,” said Marilyn. “We get to meet people that we would ordinarily never get to meet and actually get to know them.”
Throughout the years, the pair have adapted to the changing intricacies of wishes, become experts on lesser known hobbies and subjects, and have gotten hands-on involvement in the wish-granting process. They have learned to assemble furniture, play laser tag, learn about martial art action film stars and even gaming teams. They say over the years it has become more difficult to surprise kids, so they are constantly finding news way to make each wish special, yet sometimes they are surprised by some of the wish requests.
A particular wish that stands out for Debbie and Marilyn is Whitney’s visit to Monet’s garden. During their initial meeting with Whitney, they were surprised to learn how much Whitney knew about Money and were intrigued with her desire to visit Paris and experience the famous painter’s artwork for herself.
Debbie and Marilyn go above and beyond expectations in order to ensure wish kids and families feel included throughout the wish-granting process. Debbie and Marilyn schedule activities for younger siblings and have made home visits to bake cookies with the kids.
Throughout their 25 years with the organization, Debbie and Marilyn have cultivated relationships with children, their families, Make-A-Wish Central New York staff members and each other. Their closeness is evident in the way they travel throughout the 15 counties together – finding new lunch spots and antique shopping along the way; volunteering together at Syracuse Stage for the past 17 years; and sharing hobbies such as quilting.
As wish granters the duo love the work they do at Make-A-Wish. They believe wish granters are able to lift the spirits of children in treatment and contribute to the healing process significantly. “Just knowing the ‘fairy godmothers’ are coming in to the hospital makes the biggest difference,” said Debbie.