Hug a penguin. Work in a pickle factory. Be a superhero.
These are the kinds of wishes Melissa Arias will help grant for kids with critical illnesses as the new president and CEO of the Make-A-Wish chapter that includes Washington. The Bothell resident has 14 years of experience working with charities.
Research shows granting wishes for sick children replaces fear and anxiety with joy and hope, which builds the physical and emotional strength needed to fight their illnesses. Make-A-Wish Alaska & Washington — the Seattle-based chapter of the Make-A-Wish Foundation — granted 332 wishes in 2017. It will fulfill another 370 by the end of this year.
Most recently, Arias, 43, was associate vice chancellor for advancement and external affairs at the University of Washington-Bothell. As vice chancellor, she was the main point of contact for donors and supporters to make gifts and donate to the university. She also supported alumni and reported UW-Bothell news.
Here, Arias talks about how the Make-A-Wish Foundation works and her goals as CEO of the regional chapter.
What will you do as president and CEO of Make-A-Wish?
Being the “CEO of Wishes” — as my 13-year-old son has started calling me — allows me to speak with the community, with our donors, partners and future volunteers about the importance of a wish as part of the overall medical plan for a child. I have the privilege of being the chief evangelist and the opportunity to be a servant leader for the high-performing staff and hundreds of dedicated volunteers.
What led to this opportunity?
I have always been attracted to work in organizations that have a strong mission focus. The last 14 years I have worked in direct service of women and children through both human services and education organizations. When I was not working in this field, I was volunteering. Each role that I have held has built on the last and, after almost 10 years at UW-Bothell, working to raise support to ensure access and equity for our region’s students, I saw this opportunity as a great next step. I was struck by the importance of Make-A-Wish Alaska & Washington’s work. The mission, the highly reputable brand and the opportunity to follow in the footsteps of a regional icon in Barry McConnell — my predecessor — was an awesome prospect.
What makes Make-A-Wish important?
I think that many believe that a wish just has an impact on the child, but, in fact, a wish has tangible effects on not only a child’s mental and physical health, but on their family and on the greater community that surrounds them. Children who receive wishes are more likely to adhere to treatment plans and experience hope and comfort during painful and exhausting treatments. We are just a few hundred wishes away every year from ensuring every child receives a wish and will work tirelessly with a great team of volunteers and staff to close that gap.
What are your goals as president?
Today, we can fill seven school buses with kids in our region waiting for a wish. We have a lot of work to do. In the first two years, I will address this need in two ways. First, is focusing on increasing revenue and stewarding those resources to ensure we grant as many wishes as possible. Second, is investing in the staff and volunteers of the organization. My predecessor built an incredible team, but retaining, developing, challenging and recognizing their work is my ongoing goal and something that I feel is deeply important. You can have a great mission and resources, but what makes an organization high-performing is its staff and volunteers.
Explain how the foundation makes a wish come true.
It starts with either a family member, a doctor or a case worker who makes a referral to us for a child they believe meets the criteria for a wish. Our wish team will meet with that child in their home or place of care, and they’ll talk to them about what it is they could do if they could do anything in the world. For the younger children, they have games and tools to help them think about their dreams. Once that wish is decided on, the team comes back and we reach out to our network and start putting out feelers. If a child wants to be a unicorn, we ask, “How do we do it? Has anyone else done it?” Simultaneously, there’s consultation with their providers for what works with their particular health condition.
Who makes up the wish team?
We have staff members, volunteers, referral sources and donors. I have only been on the job a few days, but the support from individuals, local businesses, large corporations and celebrities is amazing. A few examples include a small construction company stepping up to build an accessible backyard oasis for a child who loves to be outdoors but struggles with mobility; a designer who invites a child into her studio to design her own fashions; and the Seahawks bringing kids to the stadium, training camp and to the sidelines to make their wishes come true. There are countless individuals behind the planning. It is awe-inspiring.
Tell me about your experience related to this field of work.
When I was at the University of Washington, and in my first year of law school at Seattle University School of Law, I worked at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Institute as both a paid employee and later as a volunteer. I supported the fundraising enterprise of the Hutch School, a K-12 school for patients and their families that unfortunately closed its operations in 2017. I did not directly work with the students, but I was inspired by their stories and their desire to attend school and stay on track when they were undergoing such intense therapies.
What was your takeaway from that?
When I heard the testimonies from the children who were receiving cancer treatment and what they wished for, I always thought they would say, “Lessening the intensity or pain of treatment.” Instead, it was often just to feel a sense of normality, to feel like they were just like any other child and not the “sick kid.” It was so simple, but it left a lasting impression on me. I think that knowing the strength of children facing illness and their desire to have a day or moment with family and friends and to not feel sick makes me want to work hard to give them that moment.
Evan Thompson: 360-544-2999, firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @evanthompson_1.
Make-A-Wish Alaska & Washington
The regional chapter of the Make-A-Wish Foundation helps grant wishes to children with life-threatening conditions. You can help make wishes come true by becoming a volunteer, donor or sponsor. Learn about ways to help at www.akwa.wish.org.