Virtual celebrity visits, drive-by parades, online shopping sprees: How Make-A-Wish is adapting to the coronavirus pandemic

Delaney, 6, received a socially distant parade as part of her wish. (Photo: Courtesy of Make-A-Wish)
Delaney, 6, received a socially distant parade as part of her wish. (Photo: Courtesy of Make-A-Wish)

Visits to theme parks, celebrity meet-and-greets, unforgettable trips ... Make-A-Wish is renowned for granting elaborate fantasies for critically ill children aged 2 1/2 to 18. But as the coronavirus pandemic sweeps the U.S., the organization has had to get creative about safely fulfilling the requests made by immune-compromised youngsters, who are high-risk for COVID-19.

Travel restrictions, mass closures and stay-at-home orders have meant that many wishes — visits to Disney parks, which have been closed since March, for instance — must be postponed or altered. Frances Hall, Make-A-Wish America vice president of mission advancement, tells Yahoo Life that the organization has been on high alert since late February, based on warnings about the coronavirus from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the State Department. Since then, she estimates that about 2,500 wishes have been impacted, with more to come.

“Because we are holding off on granting travel wishes right now based on the health and safety of our kids, which is imperative to us, we predict we will have postponed somewhere around 5,000 wishes by the end of August,” Hall says.

With travel and other in-person experiences off the table, Hall says Make-A-Wish volunteers have been “actively reaching out to all families” to adapt existing wishes by employing “a little bit more creativity.”

“Right now we’ve really created many adaptive practices so that we can still grant all the wishes that we can right now,” she adds. A shopping spree wish, for example, will take place online rather than a brick-and-mortar store. And in some instances, a planned meeting with a celebrity has pivoted into a “virtual celebrity wish” via video call. On April 17, Francisco, an Arizona teen battling cancer, connected with DJ Khaled over Zoom in lieu of a physical visit.

DJ Khaled bonded with a teen named Francisco over Zoom in lieu of an in-person meet-up. (Photo: Courtesy of Make-A-Wish)
DJ Khaled bonded with a teen named Francisco over Zoom in lieu of an in-person meet-up. (Photo: Courtesy of Make-A-Wish)

Requests for items like iPhones, laptops, gaming systems and other tangible goods are also still being fulfilled — with a twist. “We’re looking at ways that we can be creative, and enhance an existing wish and make it more special,” says Hall, who notes that many of the youths involved have been particularly impacted by the pandemic because of their health conditions. “We just want to make sure that we are giving these kids a quality wish-granting experience.”

She cites one boy who requested an aquarium. Though he couldn’t receive visitors, Make-A-Wish workers upped the ante by adding fun signage and organizing a car parade in his honor.

Delaney Scunziano, a 6-year-old from North Carolina, was also treated to a car parade featuring loved ones and members of the local police and fire departments — who Hall says help “ensure the health and safety of the child at all times” — when she received her wish, a custom backyard play set. The granted wish comes roughly five years after an infant Delaney underwent a heart transplant; at 9 months old she was diagnosed with dilated cardiomyopathy after contracting a virus that traveled to her heart. Her family was notified that a new heart was available exactly one week after her first birthday.

Alicia Scunziano, her mother, tells Yahoo Life that, while the transplant was a success, Delaney’s immune system remains vulnerable. Delaney’s condition has meant considering certain mundane activities “out of the question” or having to miss school for weeks if a classmate falls ill. Trips to the playground are especially fraught during cold and flu season.

Delaney got the playset of her dreams thanks to Make-A-Wish. (Photo: Courtesy of Make-A-Wish)
Delaney got the playset of her dreams thanks to Make-A-Wish. (Photo: Courtesy of Make-A-Wish)

“How everybody’s living today is how we have lived for the last five years,” Scunziano says. “There has been absolutely no change to this coronavirus and how we live our lives ... What people are doing now — self-quarantining, social distancing — we do this on a normal basis.”

On April 17, Delaney was gifted her own “slide-set”— no fan of swings, she requested a double slide feature and a climbing wall — to help her avoid germs, during a pandemic or otherwise.

“Her favorite thing is to go to the playground, and now she gets to do that all the time,” her mom says, adding that her daughter was “speechless” when she received her wish.

The original plan was to throw a small party to coincide with the gift, but given stay-at-home orders Make-A-Wish representatives suggested a socially distant drive-by parade instead. Friends and supporters of the Delaney’s Army Facebook page came through waving signs, playing the child’s favorite songs, honking their horns and delivering presents and Delaney’s personal highlight of the day: fast food from Bojangles' Chicken ‘n Biscuits.

“I thought that was one of the best ideas,” Scunziano says. “The swingset, she’s going to have for a long time and everything, but the memories of that parade, she’ll have that forever.”

Delaney's loved ones and local first responders staged a socially distant parade for her. (Photo: Courtesy of Make-A-Wish)
Delaney's loved ones and local first responders staged a socially distant parade for her. (Photo: Courtesy of Make-A-Wish)

As shelter-in-place orders ease in some parts of the country, Hall says that Make-A-Wish is being mindful of how to one day resume its “full wish fulfillment” as safely as possible. The organization — which on April 29 launched its Wishes Need Stars Like You campaign, supported by stars like John Cena and Michael J. Fox, to coincide with the 40th anniversary of the wish that inspired its founding — has set up a task force committed to setting out a strategy for “reemergence.”

That includes monitoring theme parks and other recreational centers — which may introduce safety measures like temperature checks — as they eventually reopen. Hall says that the organization will “continue to follow the social distancing regulations” and heed any potential venue restrictions, noting that all children who take part in travel and other activities must be “medically approved” by their doctors.

“Knowing that many of our children are already immunocompromised, we will make sure that we take all the necessary precautions before we send kids to Disney or any other theme park in the country,” she says.

Still, the hope is that, with enough precautions and preparation, wish-granting can one day return to normal.

Says Hall, “We want to be ready to grant wishes as soon as we can.”

For the latest coronavirus news and updates, follow along at https://news.yahoo.com/coronavirus. According to experts, people over 60 and those who are immunocompromised continue to be the most at risk. If you have questions, please reference the CDC’s and WHO’s resource guides. 

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