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Declan Lee Prinz (right) and his mother, Kayla, received Diamond, a female chocolate lab, Declan’s revised wish, as the pandemic conditions forced children to change wishes. Photo: Kayla Prinz

No Disneyland: Critically ill kids change their Make-a-Wish lists because of COVID-19

How Make-A-Wish and wish families have found creative solutions to physical distancing limitations caused by COVID-19

By Michelle Meiklejohn , in City , on December 2, 2020 Tags: , , , , ,

The organization known for providing once-in-a-lifetime opportunities to sick children has had to adapt how it fulfills wishes due to safety restrictions and a sharp drop in donations caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, says the director of the wish program for B.C. and Yukon.

Make-a-Wish helps to bolster hope for critically ill children by facilitating vacations, “meet and greets” with their favourite celebrities, or spending a day “on-the-job” of their dream profession. The organization has had to radically change its delivery format because of the pandemic’s effects on both safety and donations, said Michaela Bray, the director of the wish program for the B.C. and the Yukon chapter.

This has impacted what kids in B.C. and the Yukon are asking for, said Bray. While children could choose to wait until it is safe to redeem their initial wish, Bray explained, many have decided to reinvent their wish instead. Some kids have requested school equipment, home-installed gaming rooms and music equipment, and, in the warmer months, they asked for camping gear and mountain bikes.

“If they wanted to travel, let’s talk about what they wanted to do and see if we can somehow recreate that in a different way — getting to the heart of the wish and seeing if we can somehow transform that into something that doesn’t involve travel,” said Bray. 

Bray continued, “It’s not like a second-choice wish  These wishes are absolutely incredible, pandemic or not.”

A young boy with a black baseball cap plays with a puppy
The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted wish kids (such as Declan Lee Prinz, pictured above) and their families, Make-a-Wish operations, and revenue. Photo: Kayla Prinz

The problem is affecting Make-a-Wish kids from Dawson Creek, B.C., to Houston, Texas.

Declan Lee Prinz, a seven-year-old from Houston, Tex., was born with many progressive diseases, including cystic fibrosis, epilepsy, autism, gastroparesis, sphenoiditis, sleep apnea and a brain tumour. According to a Thunderbird interview with his mother, Kayla Prinz, he spent his infancy in a neonatal intensive-care unit and has been hospitalized more than 40 times in his young life.

Declan Lee’s first wish was to travel to Egypt, something he had been dreaming about since he was three years old, Prinz said. But, because of safety concerns, Declan Lee’s family encouraged him to reconsider. Declan Lee landed on visiting New York City to spend the day as a K-9 police officer, and he hoped to feed hamburgers and hot dogs to the police force, explained Prinz.

The family was going to go in March of this year, but New York City had become a COVID-19 hotspot, so the wish was cancelled.

For any child, that would be disappointing and hard to comprehend, but for a child with autism, Prinz explained, it was extra difficult for him to let go of the New York trip. Declan Lee was devastated, she said, and still occasionally asks about it to this day.

Although Declan Lee was disappointed when he could not fulfill his travel wish, he came up with a new idea with some coaxing from his family: He wanted a dog.

A brown lab with a blue collar
Diamond, Declan Lee’s new service dog, was the third iteration of his wish. Photo: Kayla Prinz

He received Diamond, a female chocolate lab, in November. In addition to becoming a new best friend, Diamond will also act as a complex service animal trained to respond to Declan Lee’s epilepsy, autism and cystic fibrosis. She’ll also act as a seeing-eye dog since the boy is partially losing sight due to his brain tumour.

When asked about Diamond, Prinz said, “[With] a service dog, the benefits he will get out of her trumps anything that he would have got from just going to New York for five days.”

For Make-A-Wish chapters across the continent, including in Canada, adapting to pandemic conditions has presented challenges as well.

The Make-A-Wish B.C. and Yukon chapter was the first chapter within Canada and the first chapter outside of the United States. It has granted 2,000 wishes for children within the region since 1983, according to their website. Bray said the chapter has been hard hit financially, as they’ve seen a steep decline in their donations. Likewise, the Make-A-Wish Central and South Texas chapter reported that they have had to postpone 91 travel wishes and that the number of wishes waiting is growing by an additional 30 per cent per month.

Make-A-Wish Canada is still granting wishes, albeit at a slower pace, and some wishes are currently on hold also. The organization has to see an uptick in donations before it can grant the usual number of wishes. It is hopeful that holiday appeals will generate funds and that 2021 will return to normal levels of giving. The revenue for Make-a-Wish Canada was $9,572,633 in 2018.

According to Imagine Canada’s Sector Monitor report, Canadian charities have seen revenues drop by an average of 30.6 per cent since the start of the pandemic, and 69 per cent of charities reported a decrease in revenue. The drop in revenue is far more dramatic than what the sector experienced during the 2008/2009 recession.

“Granting wishes in a global pandemic is not easy,” said Bray.

• Readers can donate to Make-a-Wish at makeawishbc.ca/donate, and you can donate to training Declan Lee Prinz’s service dog at gofundme.com/f/tgmvv-service-dog-for-declan.