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

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.



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.

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 –