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

I Sprinkle Happy

By Cheryllyn Tallman, Wish Granter
Pic of CheryllynSee the picture I’m holding in this photo? That’s what I do. And I love it!
I began my journey with Make-A-Wish in 2010. Initially I traveled to the office in Syracuse (home to Make-A-Wish Central New York) to volunteer as an office helper. My idea was to find out what these folks were all about and if they were truly sincere about their mission. What is their mission you ask?
“We grant the wishes of children with life-threatening medical conditions to enrich the human experience with hope, strength and joy.”

Are they sincere? You betcha! Although there are about 250 volunteers who gladly give their time, there are also nine unbelievably dedicated staff members who don’t know how to tell time, don’t know how to say “I can’t,” and will do anything to make a wish come true for our kids. They rock!
Read about them Here!

And now five years later, with more than 40 wishes under my belt, I continue to be amazed by the kids we serve. In the words of the musician Gary Allan, “Life Ain’t Always Beautiful But it’s a Beautiful Ride.” Truer words were never said from a Wish Granter’s perspective. We can’t change the hands these kids were dealt, but we can make magic with what we have been dealt and magic is what we do. And so many creative wishes from these tenacious kids. From exploring Australia to meeting famous folks like Travis Pastrana and Dora the Explorer.
And now you’re asking yourself should I get involved? Is there something I can do as well? Here’s how to find out: www.cny.wish.org
So why do “I Sprinkle Happy“?
Not too long ago I stopped in a friends shop, A & P Master Images (masteryourimage.com). I was probably telling them a story about one of my wishes when Amanda (co-owner with her husband Howard) said, “I want your job, you go around and sprinkle happy all day.” A light went off in my tiny little brain and I told her I thought she had come up with something great. After some investigation, it was discovered that no one had tagged that line or used it as a domain name.
Jump ahead to today and it’s now the name of my blog. It’s also on my bag I use for meeting new wish families as well as being on a shirt I had Amanda’s company logo for me:
I sprinkle happy!

Thanks to Mohawk Valley-based Wish Granter Cheryllyn Tallman for this post. To follow Cheryllyn, check out her blog isprinklehappy

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!

The Most Rewarding Experience You’ll Ever Have

By Benny Fairchild, Wish Granter

As a former newspaper reporter and current Make-A Wish® volunteer, I always did my best to make sure my colleagues accurately detailed the mission of Make-A-Wish® when writing about the foundation, wish families or Make-A-Wish® events.


As a volunteer I’ve often encountered people saying, “Isn’t it depressing to work with dying children?” The answer I always give is something to the effect of, “It’s anything but. It is the most rewarding thing you could ever do.”

Defeating the misperception that Wish Kids are on their deathbeds may be tough, but I always refer back to our actual mission statement: “We grant the wishes of children with life-threatening medical conditions to enrich the human experience with hope, strength and joy” with the key words obviously being “life-threatening medical conditions.”

I’m also always quick to point out that my wife Jamie, a fellow Wish Granter, and I have worked with kids who are surviving and thriving.

4EV_9052By volunteering with Make-A-Wish®, we are able to give children and their families a once-in-a-lifetime experience that enables them to ever-so-briefly forget about whatever challenges they are facing. There’s nothing depressing about that.

Anyone who has ever seen pictures from a wish can see that the smiles are priceless and the smiles are real. For me, there is a noticeable difference between a “Make-A-Wish® smile” and a regular smile, like in a school photo or picture taken in one’s backyard.

And it’s those smiles that me keep me coming back and, in my opinion, make volunteering for Make-A-Wish® one of the most rewarding, non-depressing things one could ever 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 –


The Art of Wish Granting

By Terry Baum, Wish Granter

My name is Terry Baum and I am a wish granter with Make-A-Wish Central New York.  Recently I completed my 33rd wish. These wishes have brought joy to not only me but also to the 33 children and their families over the past eleven years.

DSC04148I became a wish granter for many reasons but a couple still stand out in my mind today.  My nephew was granted a wish in 2002 after being diagnosed with a life-altering condition.  After he and his family returned home from their trip to Disney World my sisters and I became wish granters.  You could say we felt the need to “pay it forward.”   Another reason I joined Make-A-Wish Central New York was because I missed my connection with children after being an educator for 27 years.   I knew if I became a wish granter I would be able to reconnect with many children of various ages!   I have never regretted this decision.

I have met many wonderful families throughout these 11 years.  A wish granter naturally becomes attached to these children and their families, yet maintains professional boundaries. We communicate with wish kids and families sometimes on a weekly basis to “check in” or provide necessary information as their wish approaches.  One such wish that touched my heart was provided to a beautiful young princess – 4 year old, Sadie.  Sadie wished to go to Disney World with her twin sister, Layla.  She was hoping to meet Princess Sofia the First.

IMG_8307Like with all wishes, my wish partner Julie Osborn and I brainstormed how we could enhance Sadie’s overall wish experience and announcement party so that it was unique and special for her. We planned a special “Royal Ball” themed party just for them. A professional photographer donated her services along with her photo booth and props for all to use. When we arrived at the Kingsford House formal ballroom, the twins were surprised to find a horse drawn carriage on the lawn depicting Cinderella’s Royal Coach.  The princesses for the day readily hopped into the carriage for much awaited photos.

DSC04249After the photos were taken, Sadie and her family were escorted upstairs to the ballroom by her royal court of 3 lords and 4 ladies. The highlight of the afternoon was when one of the lords read the scrolled, royal decree stating that Sadie’s wish to go to Disney World was going to be granted!  The members of the Royal Court proceeded to hand out gifts to Sadie.

Seeing wishes come true is always very special for me as a wish granter. I am often overwhelmed at the generosity of our local community.  When we solicit donations or ask for special help – like using the Kingsford House ballroom and horse-drawn carriage, we are frequently given whatever we needAs with most wishes, the community came together for this little girl.  This incredible generosity that we see time and time again, makes our job as wish granters easy.   But, more importantly for one day, Sadie was a royal princess who could briefly forget about her illness.

A Reluctant Wish Dad

By Ed Mort, Wish Dad and former Board member

Many years ago, the company I work for was sponsoring a race for charity and Make-A-Wish Central New York was the designated foundation, this was the first time I met the wonderful Diane Kuppermann. This was also the first time I discussed the fact that my oldest two boys, Andrew and Michael were eligible for a wish. At that time the whole concept of “accepting charity” was something very new to me as the boys had only just been diagnosed with Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy. I believed that my wife and I had the wherewithal to take my boys where ever they wanted to go and personally take on providing every one of their wishes.

Scan_Pic0026We had always traveled, but it took on new meaning as we explored much of the east coast. Over two years later and countless miles, I realized that there were just some doors I simply could not open, no matter how much I tried. Eventually, I conceded and we allowed some absolutely wonderful people into our home, the wish granters. Always Disney fans, the boys decided that Disney would be a part of each of their unique wishes, but on separate coasts.

We experienced so many things on each of these trips with the most important to me, being the amazing outpouring of love and help from so many people. There are many hidden doors at both theme parks and the power of Make-A-Wish opens them all!  Both trips were truly magical and are an important part of our greatest memories.

Several years later, I was invited to sit on the Board of Trustees of our local chapter.  Surprise and honor, however, were soon met with fear and self doubt as I worried about what I could possibly offer a foundation of this caliber. I am no industry executive, I am just an engineer with little knowledge of how a charitable organization is run. I soon found out though, that my greatest strength in this position actually came from one of my biggest challenges.

My sons, with their incredible personal strength and ever weakening muscles had showed me what it meant to live life to the fullest. I could channel their experiences on the wishes and explain what it meant for a family to experience a wish, being a Wish Dad after all. I spent three fantastic years on the board. I quickly came to realize that not only was the foundation providing amazing wishes, they were being run very well.385003_330365913657281_1542241395_n

The group of people running this chapter never lose sight of the mission and are constantly challenging themselves to always improve individual wishes, events and finances. I learned there are few foundations in our country that provide such a large percentage of the income right back to their mission.  Did I mention that Diane Kuppermann was wonderful?

Finally, one of the proudest moments in my life was when Michael, my oldest, was honored with the Cindy Award as the most outstanding volunteer for our chapter.  He volunteers for Make-A-Wish, not because I did, but because he sees the importance of what is being done and how it forever changed his life!

Reluctance has led to passion and I am proud to be part of a great organization and will always be a Wish Dad.