Make-A-Wish executive director Tom McKinney was at the annual fund-raising Walk for Wishes last summer when he spotted a family wearing hard-to-miss T-shirts. There was "Dad of Wish Kid #7" and "Mom of Wish Kid #7," "Aunt of Wish Kid #7" and "Friend of Wish Kid #7."
How kind of them to return in support of the organization granting wishes to critically ill children, McKinney thought. Then he spotted another adult standing with them. "No way," he said.
Her T-shirt: "Wish Kid #7."
As Make-A-Wish Minnesota turns 30 this month, I bet I'm not the only person surprised, and heartened, to learn that most wish children now live into adulthood. That includes "Wish Kid #7," 34-year-old Amy Lilyquist of Edina. She was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor when she was 4 1/2.
"It took me a while to talk about it," Lilyquist said of her dire diagnosis, which required six weeks of radiation, two surgeries and five years of brain scans before 200 family members and friends celebrated with a "Clean Bill of Health" party in 1988.
When she does tell people that she was once a Make-A-Wish kid, the response often is: "'Are you serious?' They're surprised," Lilyquist said, "like, 'Really?'"
"It's a very happy story when you see that," McKinney said, "and it happens more today than in the past."
The national Make-A-Wish foundation began in Arizona in 1980, growing to 64 chapters which have collectively granted more than 200,000 wishes. Minnesota's chapter launched in 1982, facilitating more than 4,000 wishes over 30 years.
For the first 10 years, Make-A-Wish focused on terminally ill children. As survival rates grew, the organization broadened its scope to bring joy to children facing life-threatening medical conditions, regardless of the prognosis.
"Our best estimates vary, but we put the percentage of wish kids who survive into adulthood at 65 to 70 percent" nationwide, McKinney said. The oldest surviving wish child nationally was a boy who attended the Super Bowl in January 1982. Given six months to live, he now is a father in his early 40s.
Medical advances and earlier diagnoses are key to keeping more children alive. But many believe that the wish itself can be vital in a child's ability to fight illness. At the very least, a wish offers a precious release from fear and pain to just be a kid.
A 2011 Make-A-Wish study resoundingly concluded that the wish experience positively affects kids. Among the findings, 81 percent of parents observed an increased willingness by their children to comply with treatment protocols. Nearly all parents reported that their children felt happier and less anxious. Families, too, benefited, reporting that the wish strengthened them as a unit and allowed them to feel "normal" again.
"A wish gives them something fun to think about at a frightening stage of their life," McKinney said.
Wishes fall into four categories: To have (such as a computer or shopping spree), to go (to Disney World or on a cruise), to meet (a professional athlete, musician, actor), or to be (a police officer, a doctor, a ballerina). Few wishes are refused, McKinney said, and there is no more coveted volunteer job than being the wish grantors who make the wish happen.
Lilyquist was Minnesota's seventh wish child 29 years ago. Hers was a simple desire: To swim and eat pizza.
"Swimming was the last happy memory she had before she got sick," said her mom, Mary, who was pregnant and the mother of a toddler when Amy's illness was discovered.
When two Make-A-Wish volunteers came to visit, all smiles, Amy was "real guarded," said her dad, Doug. People who smiled at his daughter usually ended up poking or prodding her in the hospital.
In 1983, her radiation treatments complete, Lilyquist and her family were granted a weekend at Hotel Sofitel in Bloomington. "When we got there, everyone knew our names and why we were there," Doug said.
"No more hospitals, no more pain," Mary added. "Just time to have fun."
Lilyquist did have fun. "I was happy," she said.
"I remember the hot tub."
Her parents eventually put in a pool at their home to continue this fun family activity. Amy graduated from Edina High School, then attended two years at St. Mary's University in Winona before transferring to Hennepin Technical College in Eden Prairie to study child development. She works at a Step-by-Step Montessori.
Her siblings, Jonathan, 29, and Kristen, 31, and Kristen's family live in Colorado. Lilyquist prefers staying close to home, where she enjoys scrap-booking, Zumba and, of course, pizza.
She and her parents will be grand marshals at the 2012 Walk for Wishes July 14 at Normandale Lake Park in Bloomington (www.mn.wish.org).
Nervous? Nope, she said. "Sounds great."