Giving back: Little Falls woman among volunteers granting wishes for children with serious illnesses
By KARA YORIO STAFF WRITER | The Record
If you could have one wish, what would it be?
That is the question Kathy Gatti has asked child after child, nearly 100 times over the past 13 years.
The Little Falls resident is a Make-A-Wish New Jersey wish-granting volunteer, one of the people who visits children who have life-threatening medical conditions to find out their greatest wishes.
“We really ask the children a lot of questions,” said Gatti. “‘What’s the wish, what do you imagine doing during your wish, ‘I chose this wish because … ?’ Make A Wish always wants to make sure it’s capturing the true fondest wish of the child, what they really want.”
The wish-granting volunteers bring requests back to the organization’s office in Monroe Township, where employees contact vendors and companies to make the wish come true.
“It is office staff who work with our travel vendors and all of those people to make the wish possible, but the volunteers are very much involved in terms of communicating with the family, keeping them updated along the way, letting them know what the next steps are,” said Lauren Snyder, director of volunteer programs at Make-A-Wish New Jersey. “We want the family to have a main point of contact, and that is the volunteer team because they’re the ones they’ve met. They’re the ones they have formed that relationship with. We want to make sure they have that constant.”
Over the years, Gatti has helped send children to Disney World, India and the Galápagos Islands. Volunteers don’t join the families for vacations, but they do take part in other wishes. Gatti has gone along on shopping sprees and attended Sweet 16 parties.
She has worked rush wishes under very difficult circumstances and acted as the family liaison in wishes that have had to be delayed because of medical situations. No matter the situation, often that initial visit, that question and ensuing conversation has an impact of its own, long before anyone goes anywhere.
“Many times family has called me after — and this has happened over and over — and said, ‘Since your visit, I’ve noticed my child is doing much better,’” she said. “I find it truly amazing, these parents say to me, ‘My child is doing much better. They’re excited about their wish.’ To me, you can’t put a price on something like that. It’s very moving and emotional.”
This is more than simply Gatti’s personal experience. The 2011 Wish Impact Study that surveyed parents, health professionals and volunteers showed there is an effect on these kids and their families beyond the joy of the granted wish.
- A combined 89 percent of doctors, nurses and health professionals surveyed say they believe a wish experience can influence wish kids’ physical health.
- Ninety-nine percent of parents reported that the wish experience gave their children increased feelings of happiness, and 96 percent said that the wish experience strengthened their families.
For all, the wishes aim to be a break from lives filled with doctors and hospitals — a respite from the stress, when possible, for the entire family.
“All of a sudden they’re diagnosed and thrust into a world that changes everything,” said Gatti. “The child and the family, their whole life is just thrown upside down.”
Gatti had volunteered for other organizations in the past, but when a schedule change left her unable to continue that work, she learned about Make-A-Wish and thought it was something that would fit into her life. Wish-granting volunteers must make a year’s commitment and complete at least two wishes in that year. There is an application, interview, a background check and five hours of training before the volunteers are sent to their first family. Make-A-Wish New Jersey has about 400 wish-granting volunteers who complete an average of six wishes a year, according to Snyder.
Families can be referred to Make-a-Wish by doctors or social workers or request a wish themselves. Once the organization confirms the medical condition with the child’s doctor, the volunteers are dispatched to find out the wish, fill out some paperwork and relay to office staff the personality of the child and family and “real essence of the wish,” according to Gatti.
“The same wish is different with each child,” she said. “They have their own take on why they want it.”
Many children, including Isabella Filan of Totowa, ask to go to Disney World.
“Kathy and Mary, our volunteers, came to our house with gifts for the kids and they explained the process involved in choosing and being granted a wish,” Isabella’s mom, Christie, wrote in an email. “They were very warm and friendly people, and it was a pleasure meeting them.”
Isabella, 5 at the time, wanted to meet the Disney princesses. Gatti and her frequent wish-granting partner, Mary Sellitto-Curcio of Verona, went to the house. Isabella’s family delayed the trip a year in the hope that her seizure disorder would be better controlled by that time.
“We didn’t want to waste a Wish vacation if she couldn’t even enjoy it or remember it,” Filan wrote. “Although her seizures weren’t under control when the time came, we were blessed with a week where she was doing pretty well, so she got to thoroughly enjoy her vacation.”
At Disney World, Isabella, now 7, curtsied and introduced herself to each princess, according to her mom.
“She whispered to Cinderella that she saw her glass slipper in a case outside the room,” Filan wrote. “She told Rapunzel that she LOVES her purple dress because purple is her favorite color, too! She excitedly exclaimed to Pocahontas that ‘years and years ago,’ she saw her on TV!”
The wish volunteers and families do not necessarily keep in touch afterward, but many families — including the Filans — do contact Gatti not only to say thanks after the trip but around the holidays as well. They are deeply appreciative of her efforts. Gatti is of one of the organization’s longtime volunteers and has won numerous awards. Her dedication stands out, according to Snyder.
“She is very full of compassion and generosity for her wish families as well as for the mission of Make-A-Wish,” Snyder said. “She loves what she does, and she is always willing to put that extra step forward if there is anything that needs to be done. She’s always willing to offer to assist and always go above and beyond for anyone she is working with.”
Some of Gatti’s favorite wishes were things that truly changed the lives of the kids and their families — a bathlift for the boy who loved baths but couldn’t easily get in and out of the tub or the pool she is currently facilitating, which will be used for therapy as well as fun for a girl battling a brain tumor.
“Some people say, ‘Isn’t this really hard, isn’t this really depressing?’Ÿ” Gatti said. “Not really, it’s very uplifting. I see these children, and I look at these families, and I see their strength and what they go through and just to see them happy. We can’t change the circumstances, but we can make a child happy within the circumstances.”