25 years of wish granting: Celebrating Debbie Bender and Marilyn Sanson

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. 12376008_1088847357821961_6668541564263758513_n[1]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.

Debbie Bender and Marilyn Sanson among the many volunteers of Make-A-Wish Central New York at a volunteer appreciation dinner

Team Alex and Team Make-A-Wish

By Jim McLaughlin, Wish Dad

Editor’s note: Wish Kid Alex McLaughlin, 11, is running his first Boilermaker 5K via the Charity Bib Program. This will be Alex’s first time with Team Make-A-Wish; his dad, Jim, has run with the team since 2014.

My wife Bonnie and I both started running the Boilermaker about 15 years ago. We have missed a few years here and there, but have each done several 5K’s and 15K’s. If not for the Make-A-Wish Charity Bib, we would probably both be retired from running.

Our son Alex was diagnosed on August 24, 2011 with acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL). He completed treatment on his 10th birthday, October 24, 2014. Throughout his treatment we became aware of many different charities and fundraisers benefitting many sick children and their families. Make-A-Wish was obviously a major one that granted Alex’s wish to meet his favorite baseball team in 2012.

In 2013, we became aware of the Boilermaker Charity Bib Program, which helped support Make-A-Wish. We thought it would be a great way for us to help another kid who needed a wish.

Team Alex at 2015 post-race party - Ales is NOT in this

So, in 2014 I signed up for the Boilermaker through Charity Bib. We had many friends and family who vowed to support the effort and help us raise the money. One of Bonnie’s ideas was to sell “Team Alex” t-shirts that included the motto “No One Fights Alone.” Many of the people who were very supportive of Alex during his treatment, continued by supporting the team. Some as Boilermaker runners, some as spectators. As can be seen on Boilermaker Sunday, Alex did not have to fight alone. After having so much support in 2014 we did not have to think long about continuing in 2015. Again we had a lot of support from family and friends, many running the 5K or 15K, or cheering on the runners in their “Team Alex” shirts.

Alex McLaughlin - present dayIn 2016, they will be able to cheer for Alex himself, who has decided to run his first ever Boilermaker 5K race with the Make-A-Wish charity bib team. As many runners know, the support from the Boilermaker crowd is a huge boost during the race. Alex already knows what it’s like to have a lot of people cheering for him, and the sense of accomplishment for a major victory. We now look forward to seeing him experience it as a Boilermaker runner, and as a supporter of the next kid who needs a wish.

It’s our hope that Alex’s story will encourage someone else.

You can support Alex by visiting his Charity Bib page. If you would like to run with him and Team Make-A-Wish, there are only a few spots left. E-mail  dsmolen@makeawishcny.org  for more information.

Colgate Wishmakers: Inspired by a Wish

by Matthew Miller, Colgate Wishmakers on Campus Club President

3-1My name is Matthew Miller and I am currently a senior at Colgate University.  I co-founded the Make-A-Wish Colgate club my sophomore year with a few of my very close friends.  First, I want to share a little bit about why I wanted to get involved with Make-A-Wish. 

I attended Summit High School in New Jersey for all four years of high school. One of my close family friends had a wish granted for her going into high school. Sarah and I had grown up together and, for about 10 years, lived on the same block. 

Sarah wished to be in a movie and Make-A-Wish flew her and her family out to California. On the day of her wish, she got picked up in a limo along with two other wish kids.  They were driven to the studio where they were filming one of the “Transformers” movies. The set location was secret and no one besides the people involved with the movie had access. When Sarah and the others got there, they discovered they each had their own individual trailer with their name on it. Inside was a standard trailer for actors but it was stocked with movies, apparel, food, and many other things.  After that, Sarah got her hair and makeup done for the movie. While that was being finished, she was given a giant “Transformers” poster signed by the entire cast.  Actor Adrian Greenier, famous from “Entourage,” randomly popped in to talk to Sarah. 

After hair and makeup, Sarah headed over to wardrobe where they picked out an outfit for her.  She and her family were greeted by one of the head producers who fimageWishollowed them around all day and ensured they received the proper treatment.  During the experience, Sara also met Michael Bay, the director, and Ramon Rodriguez, one of the main actors.  The setting of the wish kid scene was at the Princeton library with kids who were posing as college students. The scene involved a Transformer that had come storming through the library and Sarah had to freak out. 

Sarah’s wish was incredibly helpful in boosting her morale. This wish had a tremendous impact on her family as well.  I got to see firsthand how dramatically this changed Sarah’s mentality and view of life. This has helped her recover from her transplant and she is currently doing really well. 

The wish that Sarah received made me want to get involved and change the lives of other children with life-threatening illnesses.  I was shocked that Colgate did not have a Make-A-Wish club, so I proposed the idea to a few of my good friends. We started out by getting signatures around campus for those who wanted to be involved and writing a constitution of the bylaws.  Eventually, we presented in front of the Student Government Association and got our club approved. 

Over the last three years we have maintained a close connection with the Make-A-Wish Central 4 - ReducedNew York chapter. We have sponsored three Colgate Men’s Ice Hockey games and hosted a wish announcement  during our third game in late February. We have hosted wish families at each of these events, which has been the most rewarding experience of it all. These Make-A-Wish hockey nights have raised about $2,000 in total. Our other big event is our Walk for Wishes/5K run in the fall semester.  We have hosted two Walks in the past two years and have raised a tremendous $24,000.  Make-A-Wish Central New York has been incredibly helpful in the planning and preparation for these events.  Our club could not be happier to host wish families and to see the firsthand impact. 

I am looking forward to passing along the club to new leaders and continuing granting wishes.  I hope to maintain a close relationship with Make-A-Wish after graduation in May.



Thirty Years of Wishes

By Founding Board Chair Susan Tormey

Close your eyes and make a wish…

We have all done it before somewhere…some time. We have thrown pennies in a fountain; we have made a dandelion seed fly off into the air; we have extinguished candles on a birthday cake while making a special wish; and we have wished upon a star looking up in the night sky.

makeawish-54f495637b39dWe have all made a wish and often in celebration of an anniversary, or some other milestone.

The dictionary defines a milestone as a significant or important point in the progress or development of something.  For Make-A-Wish Central New York, there have been many milestones throughout 30 years of making dreams come true:

  • The first full year of operation raised nearly $10,000. (1985)
  • First official office space was a lease agreement with the Hotel Syracuse for $1 a year.
  • The 100th wish was granted in 1989.
  • Diane Kuppermann was hired as the first full-time paid staff in 1992.
  • And, by 2015, more than 1,600 wishes were granted.

Three decades of milestones, magic and more than 1,600 wishes for special children across a 15-county area, bringing hope, strength and joy.

Who could have possibly imagined that?  Who could ever have wished so hard for that to come true?

Make-A-Wish embraces each and every wish child as a personal story of courage. With each wish, the entire family is emphasized so that the feeling of faith, family and friends brings even more magic to each wish.

CNY Press Conference 022
Pictured left to right: Terry Baum, Diane Kuppermann, Sue Tormey, Don Hamilton and Barb Galvin.

Thirty years ago in Syracuse, a handful of friends and colleagues touched so profoundly by the Make-A-Wish America story, came together to take that simple mission of magic and help wishes come true locally.  Because wishes create memories that last a lifetime!    


Some on the Founding Board could hardly bare to listen to the reports of pending wishes at each board meeting because of their sheer emotional impact. But once the magic of Make-A-Wish touches your heart, it truly remains there forever.

However challenging or seemingly impossible the wish, there was one word that was never an option. That word is NO! It does not appear anywhere in the Make-A-Wish dictionary.

Some on the Founding Board brought their rudimentary fundraising skills and engineered the creation of plastic wishing wells to attract and collect much needed pennies, dollars and dimes in those early years to be able to pay for the cost of a trip to Disney, attend a professional basketball game to meet Michael Jordan, have a shiny new toy tractor, or a beautiful new wardrobe and personal shopping spree.

No matter what the wish, there was always a way.

Thirty years later, there is a very large concrete wishing well in front of the Make-A-Wish Central New York office and an inspirationally designed wishing pond created by a Wish Sibling as an Eagle Scout project.  Both are symbols of wishes, of dreams, and of the ability to make them come true.

Thirty years later, there have been more than 1,600 wishes granted by hundreds of dedicated volunteers and staff across 15 counties, made possible through the generosity of school children, businesses, corporations, special events, and fundraisers all embracing what Make-A-Wish means to our children and families.

Thirty years later, there is a Star Wall representing the wishes of every child that has received a wish through our chapter. These stars shine brightly, giving hope and shining the light of appreciation and love for this wonderful organization.  That wall is part of the Make A Wish office, a special place on Campuswood Drive in East Syracuse donated by a philanthropic corporate leader in our community and renovated with a magical touch by hundreds of local contractors and talented workers to ensure the most beautiful, welcoming and wonderful home for our Wish Kids and Families.

Make-A-Wish defines generosity as a dedicated army of volunteers, wish granters, event planners and donors, and fundraisers across our 15-county service area. And it defines all of YOU, whose donations and support have brought hope, strength and joy to children facing extremely difficult medical challenges.

This community has been opening its generous heart to Make-A-Wish Central New York for 30 years.  We are so immeasurably grateful for this support and we look to a future filled with wishes made possible by your support.

Thank you for your compassion and embracing such a simple message and mission, and for the generous contributions that make magical memories forever.

Full Circle: The Impact of a Wish

By Jeff Smith, Adult “Wish Kid” and Volunteer

Being a part of the Make-A-Wish family has truly been a rewarding and life-changing experience. I began interning at Make-A-Wish in May 2015. A few weeks into my internship, social media volunteer and Wish Kid Mike Mort approached me (the man behind the blog) and asked if I’d be interested in sharing my story. I’ve never really been a very open person when it comes to talking about my illness, so I was very hesitant at first and kind of kept putting it off. Now, three months later, I’ve volunteered for two events and worked in the office weekly. From this experience, I’ve come to realize I’m a part of a very special group of people with the power to inspire, give hope, and show that there’s a world beyond hospitals and doctors offices.

iv-drip.Awful things happen all the time, but you never really expect it to happen to you. I certainly didn’t think I was going to be diagnosed with Leukemia. Like most teenagers, I thought I was basically bulletproof. The change from a typical 15-year-old to a cancer patient was definitely not the easiest transition. My daily routine, instead of attending class and participating on my high school’s sports teams, became frequent hospital visits and constant treatments. The things I thought were the most important in the world at the time became second to my illness. Fortunately, I didn’t have very many complications and within two months I was in remission. I’m happy to say five years later I’m still cancer free and have never felt better!

It was right about this time when I was told I was eligible for a wish and met my amazing wish granters Sandy and Karen. I think most Wish Kids will agree – deciding on a wish is no easy task. It took me months to decide! My original wish was to go to the Pro Bowl in Hawaii and hopefully see some of my favorite Miami Dolphins players amongst the mix of the NFL’s best. Unfortunately, I was too sick to go and my trip got canceled a couple weeks before the game. I thought that was the end of my wish experience, but to my surprise they let me wish again.

At the time when I had to decide on my new wish, I was a senior in high school dreaming of leaving home and getting the whole college experience. I think because my time in high school was so unorthodox, college became a very big deal. I always felt like it was a chance at a fresh start and an opportunity to put my illness behind me. Unfortunately, I was still receiving preventative treatment, so leaving home for college just wasn’t a feasible option. In high school I had taken a few classes at LeMoyne College and really enjoyed them. Once I had been accepted, LeMoyne was at the top of my list. The location was perfect because it was close to both my house and Upstate, where I was receiving treatments. So, with this in mind, I made my wish.942827_577245065640815_2008342277_n

I found out my wish for higher education was accepted during an award ceremony on my last day of high school.  I was presented with a scholarship from Make-A-Wish in combination with LeMoyne College. One moment of pure shock and surprise was greater than any trip I could have taken. It was an incredible feeling being able to share that moment with my friends, family, classmates, and of course my wish granters.

I feel very lucky to have been a part of the Make-A-Wish family as both a wish kid and an intern. “Lucky” isn’t typically an adjective a person uses to describe their feelings about being diagnosed with a serious disease. Even though I faced a lot of hardships dealing with my illness, my wish has truly impacted my life for the better. I hope that in some way my work here has given a child in my position this same inexplicable feeling.

The Never-Ending Wish

By Cody Thompson, Wish Kid and volunteer 

Over twenty years ago I received a call from my Aunt telling me that I was nominated for a wish with the Make-A-Wish Foundation. Little did I know this would become a huge part of my life.

I still remember my Wish Granters, Scott and Meaghan Green, who would help bring about this life-changing event. One of the first things they asked was if I had been thinking about what I wanted to wish for…I definitely had some ideas in mind! After discussing some of them, one that seemed to stick out was my interest in working with marine animals. Make-A-Wish ran with that idea at full speed!

Picture of Cody on his wish - WalrusI was flown out to San Francisco along with my family where they set me up with marine trainers at a park called Marine World Africa USA. There I learned how the dolphins, sea lions, whales, and walruses were trained and I even got to see some newborn dolphin calves. I spent three days with the trainers and a few more days exploring San Fran. Soon it came to an end though (or so I thought) and I went home.

Cody on his wish Shortly after arriving home I received a letter from the head trainer, Deb Marrin, stating that they decided to name one of the baby dolphins “Cody.” The word traveled from there and soon a television program called Wild About Animals reached out stating they wanted to do a story on me and my wish, and so we did. What an honor it was and what a story I have to tell, all stemming from my single wish! But it didn’t end there.

Shortly after my wish I realized how much the foundation does and knew I wanted to be a part of that. With the help of Diane Kuppermann (Make-A-Wish Central New York President and CEO) I started to volunteer for events, whether it was taking part in the event, setting it up, speaking, or anything else I could do. What I really wanted to do though was become a Wish Granter and become directly involved in the wish process.

Picture of Cody at Make-A-WishIn 2009, I did just that! After moving to Philadelphia many years later I started working with the Make-A-Wish chapter there and have been granting wishes ever since. Let me tell you there is nothing like it! You meet these kids, who along with their parents are stronger than just about anyone you will ever come in contact with. I would be lying if I said that I didn’t get teary eyed at times, but it’s not always brought on by sadness. When you get to present a wish to a child and their family and you see their faces light up, it’s a feeling I truly cannot put into words. You may just have to experience it for yourself!

When I was preparing to speak at a recent event I realized that my wish hasn’t ended. That single experience itself may have been a moment in time, but the memories that I reflect back on and the stories I share are something I will always have. On top of that, I’ve made lifelong friends, I get to do something I love, and I get to bring genuine happiness to people’s lives. I never would have imagined the doors a wish could open and the experiences I would gain. For that I want to thank Make-A-Wish for everything they do!

Running For Wishes

By Kate Hennigan, YPAC Vice Chair and Wish Granting Volunteer

For the third year, I have signed up to run the Boilermaker, a 15k road race in Utica, New York. I’m running as part of the Charity Bib Program and raising funds for Make-A-Wish® Central New York.

Kate Hennigan Boilermaker 2013 - 2nd from right
Kate at the 2013 Boilermaker (standing, 2nd from right)

Additionally, I am a member of the Make-A-Wish Young Professional Advisory Council, serving as the Vice Chair, and am also a Wish Granting Volunteer. At the moment I’m working on two wishes.

My first wish was for a spunky 13-year-old girl named Molly, who wished to meet the “Shaytards” (a family who video blogs on YouTube). Molly and her family went to California and met the “Shaytards” at VidCon. It was a trip of a lifetime for Molly. Afterward, when I saw Molly at the airport, she was exhausted but told me she had an incredible time. Unfortunately, a few months later Molly passed away. In speaking with her parents, they thanked us over and over for helping her wish come true. Her mom said Molly spoke of her trip every day and that the family would have the memories to cherish forever. The comment that spoke the most to me was when Molly’s mom said that Make-A-Wish allowed Molly to cross something off her bucket list.

Picture of WIsh Kid Molly - front - & Family
Wish Kid Molly & Family

Molly’s story is just one of many and I am incredibly honored to be involved in such an amazing organization that gives back to our community in such a unique and tangible way.

My dream is to one day live in a world where children don’t face life-threatening illnesses.  For now, I am working to help make wishes come true. This year I will be running the Boilermaker road race with a fundraising goal of $2,500.  As always I’ll be running for my Aunt Aileen, who is never far from my thoughts.

But this year I’ll also be running for Molly.

Editor’s note:

To follow Kate’s progress, check out her Boilermaker Charity Bib page –