LACONIA — Nikki Lyons vividly remembers the first time she got to see up-close how Make-A-Wish touches the lives of seriously ill youngsters.
Little David wished for a castle, and Make-A-Wish made it come true. The castle was built in David's backyard. Volunteers worked behind a long, high drape so David couldn't see what was going on. When it was finished it was time for the unveiling.
Then-Gov. John Lynch was there to proclaim David the lord of his castle. Lyons, then strictly a volunteer for Make-A-Wish, was one of those waiting to pull down the curtain, letting David see for the first time what he had long wished for.
Lyons saw the look of amazement on David's face. Lyons talks about that day, identifying David only by first name, in keeping with Make-A-Wish's policy.
"Kids (with life-threatening medical conditions, like David) have been ripped out of their childhood and are fighting an adult battle," says Lyons, a Laconia resident, who earlier this month was honored by Gov. Maggie Hassan at the state's Volunteer Coordinator of the Year. "Granting these kids' wishes provides hope and strength to keep fighting." And just as importantly, she adds, "It makes them able to be children again."
Volunteers are indispensable to organizations like Make-A-Wish. Make-A-Wish New Hampshire has 500 volunteers, according to Julie Baron, the organization's president and CEO.
Some volunteers go out and meet with youngsters and their families to find out what the child's wish is. Others help out in the office and assist the nine-member staff in various ways. Still others organize or help run fund-raisers. And then, there are Wish Ambassadors — those have benefited personally from Make-A-Wish — who go out to speak to other families and to community groups about how the organization touched their lives, and with the public's generosity can touch even more.
As director of volunteer services for Make-A-Wish New Hampshire for almost three years, Lyons has been responsible for recruiting, training and retaining volunteers.
Lyons graduated from Keene State College with a degree in communications. For a time she considered a career in television news, but realizing that being a TV news reporter wasn't for her, she took a job as a marketing assistant at Taylor Community. It was while she was at Taylor that Lyons got to meet Baron and they became good friends. Baron would ask Lyons about her interests and her goals.
"I didn't realize at the time she was interviewing me," Lyons recalled.
Lyons started with Make-A-Wish NH as a volunteer herself. Soon she was hired part-time to oversee the volunteers. As Make-A-Wish NH grew to meet more and more wish requests, the demands on Lyons grew to the point where she was working full-time.
It's hard to imagine anyone who would be better suited to enticing people to give their time and energy to helping bring smiles to seriously ill children's faces.
"I want (a job) where I wake up every day and jump out of bed with excitement," she said. "I feel really passionate about what I do. I just love children."
"Nikki is a great fit for Make-A-Wish," says Baron. "She has that knack of finding the right job for the right volunteer and to help them understand the work of the organization."
The mission of Make-A-Wish remains the same as when Baron was hired to head the organization a dozen years ago. But its reach has grown phenomenally.
During Baron's first year as the head of Make-A-Wish NH, the organization granted 39 wishes. This past year it granted 90 out of the 112 wish requests it received. Baron's goal is simple. "We want to be able to grant every wish" we receive, she says.
Lyons and Baron know that to achieve that goal requires more and more fund-raising.
The average wish costs $10,000, says Lyons. The most common wish is for a trip, with Disney World being the most popular destination. But there are other wishes, too. One child wanted a Barbie experience, another a tree house.
The wish one that still brings Lyons to tears is Garrett, who due to his life-threatening illness had lost the ability to walk. He wished for a trip to Cambodia so he could go there to build wheelchairs for bombing victims who were unable to walk. Today Garrett is in college in South Carolina, where he is involved on a on-campus organization that helps support Make-A-Wish, says Lyons.
With the challenge to grant more and more wishes, means the need to raise more and more funds. Even before Lyons received the award from Gov. Hassan at the Governor's Conference on Volunteerism ceremonies in Concord she was making the transition from her job as volunteer director to Make-A-Wish NH's director of community outreach, a position in which she will be working with community organizations and activists who host big-time fund-raising happenings, like car shows and golf tournaments, to smaller-scale events, like bake sales and car washes. One local event that Lyons will be closely involved with is the Timberman Triathlon in August, which attracts a contingent of competitors who in the past have raised upward of $80,000.
In order for Make-A-Wish to consider a wish request, there needs to be a referral from a qualified medical professional that a child, between the ages of 2 1/2 and 18 years, has a life-threatening medical condition. Most of the children have been diagnosed with some form of cancer. But there are other serious illnesses which are life-threatening, such as cystic fibrosis, Lyons explains.
Lyons stresses that while the child's illness must be life-threatening, that does not mean that they have to be dying. But it is that association of Make-A-Wish with youngsters who have been diagnosed as terminally ill that sometimes makes families hesitant to reach out to the organization.
"These parents are not referring their child because they think it makes it look like they are giving up on their child," she said.
Both Baron and Lyons say their personal experience with a family member who died from cancer helps them see more clearly and feel more deeply how important Make-A-Wish is.
Baron said that watching her mother battle cancer helped her to see that strength and hope can mean so much.
One of Lyons' cousins died of leukemia when he was 4. And while Lyons never knew the cousin — he died a couple of years before she was born — she has vivid memories of her aunt and uncle going to the hospital where the cousin was treated and giving Christmas presents to the cancer patients there. "Having someone battle a life-threatening and ultimately terminal illness has had an impact on our family," she says.
In thinking about the award she has received Lyons is quick share the credit. "I am very privileged to work with some of the most passionate people I have ever met in my life," she says, "volunteers, staff, and board members."