I think it’s important to dispel this misconception and for people to better understand that wishes are given to children who are facing “life-threatening medical conditions.” This is an important distinction because Make-A-Wish sees its role as a step in the healing process rather than as a final wish. In fact, due to advances in medicine over the past 30 years, about 70% of children who receive a wish these days go on to live healthy, productive lives.
One clear example of this change in survival rates is for children born with HIV. Make-A-Wish was founded in 1980, at the forefront of one of the greatest infectious epidemics in human history. Known as AIDS babies, they were children who were born HIV-positive by contracting the virus from their mothers. No one expected them to live very long in the early days.
“When I first started I was taken aback by how many children were diagnosed with HIV,” said Gail Monaco, Senior Director, Corporate Philanthropy at Make-A-Wish’s Metro New York office. “It was really a stigma to be diagnosed with HIV. It’s totally differently now. We rarely hear of a child with HIV or AIDS.” As the years passed, HIV transmission patterns began to shift and to ultimately diminish. Eventually, most of babies born with perinatal HIV grew into thriving teens and young adults, a clear indicator of medical advancement.
Monaco has been working for the nonprofit organization since 1995, and also immersed herself in the company’s culture by volunteering as a wish granter. She reflects back to the second wish she ever granted that was for a child diagnosed with HIV, who, she cheerfully reports, is still alive today. Since 1995 there has been a marked decline in HIV cases among children under 13 to approximately 10 cases by 2013.
“I quickly realized Make-A-Wish was different than other organizations I had worked for,” Monaco explained. “I could actually reach out and touch the wish, see where the funds were going, and see the wish empower the child and family. There’s still a lot of work to do but we’ve done a great amount of work and want to continue to have a life-affirming impact on a child’s life by focusing on hope, because sometimes a wish is the best medicine.”
Make-A-Wish changed the game for children born HIV-positive at a time when it was sorely needed—to combat the social stigma and help foster happiness and hope in the children’s lives. HIV-prevalence was and remains higher among those with less education and lower incomes. The nonprofit tracks trends, risk factors and prognoses for every disease it encounters among wish recipients. Although HIV-infection among children is no longer as great a threat as it was 35 years ago, new diseases continue to emerge and challenge the organization to improve and expand its efforts.