Despite the drizzling rain that is falling, 5-year-old Marilou de Repentigny is determined to go outside. “Come, let’s play in my park,” she insists. But instead of heading to a local playground, she slides open her back door and scampers out toward a huge wooden play structure with a long, blue slide, a swing and a tire for twirling on.
And while many families have playsets in their backyards, this one has a special meaning attached to it. In 2006, Marilou was diagnosed with lymphoma and underwent treatment for one year at Ste. Justine Hospital. Her immune system became so weak that she was forbidden to play in the local park in case she would pick up germs. It was a difficult restriction for an active little girl and she began asking if someday she could have a playset in her backyard.
Then Marilou’s mom, Annie Desrochers, heard from another parent about an organization called Make-A-Wish Foundation, which grants wishes to children ages 3-17 with life-threatening medical conditions. Desrochers contacted the organization in the spring and two volunteers, Érick Zamudio and Lyne Robert, were sent to visit the family. They talked with Marilou about her likes, dislikes, hopes and wishes.
She told them that she loved pizza and the colours pink and blue. But most of all, she talked about how she missed going to the park to play. Then Marilou pulled out magic markers and paper and drew a picture of her dream playset. It showed a tall structure with a house, a slide, a tire and swings, all surrounded by grass and flowers.
This June, after being whisked away for a walk, Marilou came home and was led out to the backyard where her extended family had gathered. As she walked through the back door, she first saw the slide and then the rest of the playset. “There were pink and blue balloons on it,” she says excitedly, adding “and we got to eat pizza too.”
Desrochers says she cannot remember exactly what happened after her daughter saw the playset. “We were so filled with emotion.” But since then, she adds, the playset has brought a touch of normality to the family’s life. “If I need to make dinner and the kids want to play, I can just open the door and out they go.”
Jocelyne Vautour, the Executive Director of Make-A-Wish Quebec, says granting a wish often helps not just the child but the whole family as well. Whether the wish consists of a trip to Disney World (a popular choice) or going to a heavy metal concert, all members of the immediate family are encouraged to participate. “For that time, they can forget about the child’s illness and just be together,” Vautour says. “They feel like a family again.”
The Quebec chapter of Make-A-Wish opened in 2001 and has an office in Montreal West. Vautour says getting a child’s wish granted is a fairly simple process. People can call the organization or visit the website to fill out a form that asks them about the child’s condition and asking for permission to contact the child’s doctor. This is how the organization determines eligibility.
In the past, children with cancer, muscular dystrophy and those who have had organ transplants have all been granted wishes. Vautour says one of the misconceptions about the organization is that only children who are dying are granted wishes. On the contrary, many kids go on to make a full recovery and live long, healthy lives.
Once a child is accepted into the program, volunteers work with the family to find out what the child’s wish is and to determine if it can be granted. For example, a 3-year-old boy talked about how he loved trains and the Wiggles, the popular Australian band that makes children’s music. So last month, the toddler and his family boarded a train to Ottawa, saw the Wiggles in concert and got to meet the five loveable Aussies backstage.
The organization puts very few restrictions on the wishes (no motor vehicles for example) and often uses contacts in other chapters around the world to make a wish come true. Coordinator Kim Tremblay explains that when a teenage boy asked to meet heavy metal band Iron Maiden, she was able to reach the band’s manager within a few days, thanks to a lead from another chapter.
Vautour says Make-A-Wish Quebec is keen to work with more families. “I think people are too shy to call us — they feel like they are asking for too much.” But the benefits to the child and the family of a wish granted can be huge, she says. “It makes everyone feel better. It gives them something to talk about other than the illness.”
And in Marilou’s case, the wish has made it easier for all the children in the family to enjoy the outdoors and burn off some energy. Marilou sees the doctors at Ste. Justine hospital every three months and won’t be considered “officially cured” until she has been cancer-free for five years.
In the meantime, she is enjoying kindergarten and looking forward to the holidays and a birthday in March when, as she explains, “I’m 5 1/2 now and then I’ll be 6.”
For more information about the Quebec chapter of Make-A-Wish, call (514) 488-9474 or visit www.makeawish.ca. The organization is selling calendars, with pictures drawn by children (including Marilou), to raise funds for the organization. The calendars cost $10 and can be purchased via the website or by calling the office.