A couple weeks ago about seven of my friends independently sent me this article about Electron Boy, the alter ego of 13-year-old Erik Martin of Bellevue, Washington. Erik has a rare type of cancer called paraganglioma, and was recently the recipient of a wish produced by the Make-A-Wish Foundation. He wanted to be a superhero, and the staff and volunteers of Make-A-Wish delivered in a big way. He got a costume, a sidekick, a phone call from Spiderman, a ride in a DeLorean (apparently it didn’t top 88mph, though), and the opportunity to make three daring rescues around the Seattle area.
My friends knew I would be interested because I’ve been talking for months about how excited I am to attend a “Wish Granter” volunteer orientation next month. I absolutely cannot wait to start meeting families like Erik’s (read this for some serious inspiration), contributing my ideas and skills to making other wishes come true, and, in whatever way I can, making kids like Erik feel special and powerful.
I recently had the opportunity to speak with the woman behind the Electron Boy wish. Jessie Elenbaas is a Wish Manager with the Make-A-Wish Foundation of Alaska, Montana, Northern Idaho and Washington. She specializes in “shopping sprees, celebrities, international travel, and when children wish to be something like a superhero or cowgirl.” Not a bad job, right?
Read on to to find out what goes on behind-the-scenes when a wish comes true.
Everybody’s Invited!: What does it mean to be a Wish Manager?
Jessie Elenbaas: I manage 30 to 40 wishes at a time, and work with two volunteers on each wish, providing them with a budget and some How To instruction. I also arrange a lot of the community involvement.
EI!: If you specialize in all of those things, what’s left? What other kinds of wishes do kids make?
JE: 40 – 50% of the wishes are Disney-related. We also have someone who specializes in Hawaii trips and cruises, and someone who specializes in sports-related wishes. There are certain wishes we can’t do – for example, if they’re not age appropriate, if they involve guns or hunting, or if the child’s doctor won’t allow it.
EI!: How did you land this job?
JE: I have a nonprofit background, and I’ve worked with people with disabilities. I also have a lot of travel experience. I heard about the job through someone who was a volunteer, and it was just a great fit. I’ve been here for five years.
EI!: What’s the best part of the job?
JE: Meeting the kids. Here in the office, we don’t always get to meet the kids, because the volunteers have the most interaction with them. So it’s great when there’s a wish that involves the media, the community or a celebrity, because then I get to meet the children involved.
EI!: Why do you think the Electron Boy story made such an impact on people?
JE: We were helped by things like Facebook and Twitter; the stories can go viral much quicker now. I think a theme from Erik’s wish that resonates with people is the idea of an underdog rising up.
EI!: The number of people involved in the Electron Boy wish was amazing. How did you get the so many members of the community involved?
JE: It takes a lot of experience to know the right formula. We had a network in place. We’d worked with the Puget Sound Electric Company before. And the local sports teams, and the Space Needle, the Seattle Children’s Theatre, and the guys from Deadliest Catch [Editor's note: These guys played the villains], so we were able to tap into that network to coordinate this wish. Even though I’ve had a lot of experience planning wishes, it’s still work to make sure each one is different from the others. And there are medical and other considerations that make you treat each wish differently. With the Electron Boy story, for example, some of the volunteers had the idea to do something with him flying, but since Erik is afraid of heights, we decided not to do that. You have to make each wish special for the particular child. It’s kind of like planning a wedding. Each child is different, just like each bride is different.
EI!: What do you say to people who say the money used to grant wishes could be better used to fund medical research?
JE: Donors who are going to donate to [a children's hospital] are going to donate to [that hospital]. My husband is a nurse and he’s told me that the wishes help the kids through their hardest times. They say medicine treats the body, and wishes treat the soul.
EI!: What’s the most challenging aspect of your work?
JE: Dealing with kids who are struggling with life-threatening illnesses. Each week we have a meeting where we look at the list of kids who need a wish. If there are 300 kids on the list, it means there are 300 kids out there with a life-threatening illness. You can become numb. If you ever stop crying when a child passes, you’ve been here too long.
EI!: What skills are needed to be a wish granter volunteer?
JE: To believe in the mission. To understand that every child’s wish is special, even if you’re not personally excited by it. To meet them where their dreams are.
Talking with Jessie left me even more inspired and committed to this volunteer work. I sort of can’t believe that I’m going to have the opportunity to do things like this for kids who are going through a terribly difficult experience. I honestly can’t think of a better way to spend my time.