From fulfilling final dreams to fueling belief in tomorrow

Foundation: Grant-A-Wish in Catonsville, which helps sick children and their families, is changing its name to reflect its shift in focus.

January 10, 2003|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

It started with a dying girl who wanted nothing more than a pair of green roller skates. Within a few years, the Grant-A-Wish Foundation was fulfilling all kinds of dreams for children with life-threatening diseases, from meetings with Cher and Hulk Hogan to a trip to Australia to study marsupials.

But now, 20 years after its founding, the Catonsville-based charity has left the wish business - a field that had become expensive, crowded with competitors and, its organizers say, at odds with its evolving mission of helping sick youngsters focus on hope and survival.

The group, one of the first wish-granting organizations in the country, has changed its name to the Believe in Tomorrow Foundation. It has granted its final wish, turning instead to a menu of programs that help children and their families cope with the strain of grueling medical treatment.

Brian Morrison, whose quest for the green skates led him to found Grant-A-Wish, said he feels liberated by the change from providing what often were interpreted as "last" wishes to a more hopeful name and purpose. "The day I don't hear wish-granting, it will be a rewarding day," he said.

At least temporarily, the changes have cost Believe in Tomorrow. Morrison expects donations to be down by 20 percent to 25 percent for last year from a high in 2000 of $1.2 million. Morrison attributes part of that drop to the sluggish economy, though he acknowledges the unfamiliar name has played a role.

Meanwhile, the group is starting a $10 million campaign to build more respite housing around the country to give families of sick children restful vacations they couldn't otherwise afford. Its programs also include providing pain distraction toys for children undergoing treatment and "adventures" that allow kids to ride in blimps or spend time with professional race-car drivers.

"Now we're just going to work twice as hard in getting the resources," Morrison said. "Does it mean we all go back to selling more raffle tickets and more grass-roots [organizing], the way we grew? Maybe."

Morrison's group started simply enough. He was spending time at the University of Maryland Medical Center, researching a story about the trauma unit as a public relations writer. There, he learned of the girl who longed for green skates.

Morrison bought a pair of white skates and painted them green. He enjoyed the experience so much, he recruited business friends and volunteers to help grant other wishes.

But over the next few years, the wishes got increasingly elaborate - and expensive. A typical request, such as a trip to Disney World, could cost $2,000.

At the same time, the organization's staff and board were growing ambivalent about wishes. As one-time splashy events, did the trips and meetings send the right message to parents who were hoping - albeit against the odds - for their children to survive? Could the money be better used to let many families take breaks from the hospital, at the shore or in the mountains? "Year after year, [wishes] became the smallest thing we were doing," Morrison said. "We knew the most meaningful things we were doing were in these other areas."

The rest of the wish business was booming. The Make-A-Wish Foundation, which started two years before Morrison's charity, has grown to a $100 million organization with chapters around the country that grant 10,000 wishes a year. Though operated nationally, the former Grant-A-Wish is much smaller, with assets - including The Children's House, the separately incorporated residence for ill children it runs next to Johns Hopkins Hospital - of about $5 million.

Guidestar, a Web site that tracks national nonprofit data, lists more than 200 public charities with "wish" in the title, many of them catering to sick children. Some fly-by-night organizations adopted the Grant-A-Wish name to pull off quick schemes, Morrison said, leading to confusion and legal battles.

Still, that name was well-known - and tough to relinquish. The organization held onto it for years.

"When you change a brand ... you've really got some issues," said Richard McCready, chief executive officer of Advantage Sales & Marketing/ESM in Columbia and the organization's board president, who opposed the change for a time. "I wasn't sure that we could pull it off."

Kevin Lane Keller, a marketing professor at Dartmouth College's Tuck School of Business and an expert on branding, said Believe in Tomorrow will have to get the word out about what its new name means - and add emotional power to the message that attracts donors in the same way the "wish" idea did.

State Comptroller William Donald Schaefer, an honorary board member since Grant-A-Wish began, wasn't aware that it had stopped granting wishes - the primary reason he had gotten involved.

"But getting vacation homes and giving people a respite from taking care of kids is a great idea, too," Schaefer said. "It's just a matter of people like me, like anyone, getting to know what the organization does."

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