For Denise Bar-Aharon, the Co-Founder and CEO of Make-A-Wish Israel, ‘The Power of Giving’ is the definition of her late brother David Spero, who was doing his MA at Hebrew University when he was diagnosed with cancer 25 years ago. “He volunteered even when he was a young boy,” she reveals. “He knew at a very young age that the secret to happiness was to help people less fortunate than himself, whether it was at a local soup kitchen or helping cancer patients.” Denise and her husband Avi founded Make-A-Wish Israel 22 years ago in David’s honor.
Magical and transformational
Make-A-Wish Israel is an affiliate of Make-A-Wish International that was founded in 1980 in Phoenix, Arizona, when a group of caring volunteers helped grant a special wish to 7-year-old Chris Greicius, who was fighting leukemia. His wish to be a police officer was realized with the help of very kind people, and was the inspiration that established Make-A-Wish around the world.
Today Make-A-Wish is the world’s leading children’s wish-granting organization, with 40,000 volunteers worldwide granting a wish every 17 minutes, on average, somewhere in the world. Since 1980, Make-A-Wish has granted more than 415,000 wishes globally. Make-A-Wish International serves children outside the United States in more than 48 countries on five continents through its affiliates.
“The magical wishes are not only beautiful, they are also transformational for a child with a critical illness” says Denise. This was actually proven in a scientific study, “The Make-A-Wish Impact Study,” conducted by Dr. Anat Shoshani under the supervision of Dr. Tal Ben Shahar at the Maytiv Center at IDC Herzliya in 2016. The study was published in medical journals and translated into seven languages.
Wishes fall into four categories: to be – a CEO, a zookeeper, a firefighter, a king or a princess for a day; to have – a bedroom makeover, an iPad, a puppy or a tree house; to meet – a famous artist, a soccer player or a politician; or to go – to Disneyland, to London to watch a musical, to a soccer game in Barcelona or on a shopping spree in New York City.
During the children’s medical treatments, when they know that their wish is right around the corner, they become more receptive to medication and are much more positive all around. That’s why, for Make-A-Wish Israel, each wish is a production taken very seriously, because when a child’s one true wish is fulfilled, it can change the child's life forever.
The joy of giving
Ten years ago, Batia Ofer was appointed Honorary President of Make-A-Wish Israel, after so graciously asking the guests at her wedding to not bring gifts, but, rather, to donate to the foundation. Batia has been extremely instrumental and has opened many doors for the benefit of the foundation, including enlisting world-renowned artists, thereby enabling hundreds of wishes to come true. Every year, Make-A-Wish Israel together with Sotheby's and the Alon Segev Gallery holds an exclusive art auction for the Friends of Make-A-Wish Israel, known as the WishMakers.
With an incredible Board of Directors, led by Israeli actor Dvir Benedek and over 150 volunteers, Denise is able to keep the staff very lean. In fact, Make-A-Wish Israel’s staff consists of only eight employees in total, who nevertheless grant almost one wish a day!
Over the past six years, Denise has successfully collaborated with the CEO’s of other Make-A-Wish International affiliates and CEO’s of Make-A-Wish chapters in the U.S. in an initiative called ‘The Shared Appeal,’ which focuses on the Jewish communities in the respective countries. Donors and sponsors are thrilled when they find out that there is a Make-A-Wish affiliate in Israel and that their donations can contribute to the lives of children with critical conditions in Israel as well as where they reside.
Another incredible initiative that was created by the Israel team is a program called ‘Kids 4 Wish Kids’ that enables over 100 schools and scout troops in Israel to be part of a wish by doing fundraising activities on behalf of Make-A-Wish children. “This program is something I am very proud of,” says Dvir Benedek, Make-A-Wish Israel’s Chairman of the Board, “as I feel that an integral part of educating children is teaching them the importance and joy of giving at a young age.”
Dvir not only holds the positions of Chairman, but is also actively involved with actually granting wishes and hosting the foundation’s events. One of his favorite wishes was last year's Spiderman wish, when 11-year-old Ilay became Spiderman for a day, saving his city of Shlomi in northern Israel. Dvir played the villain and enjoyed every minute. The local police department, fire department and even Ilay’s surgeon all took part in this spectacular wish.
Being a princess and meeting the president
“There are so many wishes that will forever make an imprint in my mind,” says Denise. “One was 7-year-old Tamar who wanted to be a princess for a day. She was truly a princess in every way, and even went through different princess initiation rites on her wish, like learning princess etiquette, listening to a harp being played just for her and more… This was all before her big ceremony, where she was crowned as a princess and sat next to a king.”
Tamar’s father continued to say throughout the wish that he had never seen his daughter so happy in her entire life and that this wish came at a perfect time. The whole previous year she had been through grueling treatments and painful procedures, and she had been completely overwhelmed before the wish and needed a positive uplifting experience. “The wish experience will live on in her life forever,” said Tamar’s father.
Another life changing wish was one of the first ones ever granted in Israel, some 20 years ago, when at the time 16-year-old cancer patient Yoni Dotan met then President Bill Clinton in the Oval Office. When asked what gift he would be bringing the President, Yoni replied “a T-shirt.” In fact, he gave the President of the United States a T-shirt that said “I met Yoni Dotan” and asked the President to promise him he would wear it – and the president agreed. Less than two weeks later, Yoni’s T-shirt made headlines in all the major newspapers in America when the President wore it while running in the park with his daughter Chelsea. Everyone wanted to know, “who is Yoni Dotan?” Needless to say, Yoni felt invincible.
Yoni’s philosophy is shared among many of the wish children who have expressed that the wish enabled them to feel that now anything is possible in their lives. And in Yoni’s case, meeting the President of the United States truly made him invincible, so much so that today he is a very successful talent agent in Israel and was instrumental in helping sign Gal Gadot for the part of Wonder Woman.
For Denise, every time a child’s wish is fulfilled, she looks up and give a “high five” to her brother David, who has posthumously affected not only the lives of thousands of wish children but also their families, communities, volunteers, sponsors and all the people involved who have had the privilege to change a life.