December 2, 2011

Making wishes come true

Teenager’s foundation helps children battling life-threatening illnesses

At 18, Liz Niemiec has used her Catholic faith to start the Little Wish Foundation, an organization that makes small wishes possible for children stricken with cancer. Here, she poses at Riley Hospital for Children in Indianapolis with 3-year-old Riley, a Richmond child who wanted a portable DVD player and movies. (Submitted photo)

At 18, Liz Niemiec has used her Catholic faith to start the Little Wish Foundation, an organization that makes small wishes possible for children stricken with cancer. Here, she poses at Riley Hospital for Children in Indianapolis with 3-year-old Riley, a Richmond child who wanted a portable DVD player and movies. (Submitted photo)

By John Shaughnessy

When she left the funeral home, Liz Niemiec couldn’t stop thinking about the 7-year-old boy who had died of cancer.

As she and her mother drove home from the wake for Max Olson—a family friend—Liz also couldn’t stop thinking about how she wanted to honor his

too-short life with a plan that would help other children suffering from cancer.

Sixteen at the time, Liz recalled the one wish that Max had always longed for, a wish that wasn’t possible while he was undergoing treatments for the disease. Yet, when doctors determined that there was nothing more they could do for Max, his parents made his wish come true. They gave him a dog.

“I saw how happy he was after that one wish,” recalls Liz, now 18. “At the time Max needed it the most, it gave him comfort and happiness. It made me see how one little thing can make a difference in someone’s life.”

Driving home that day, Liz told her mom that she wanted to start a foundation that would make small wishes possible for cancer-stricken children—a foundation she decided to call the Little Wish Foundation.

“I made a promise that I would do something to keep Max in people’s minds and to do something for other kids who are going through the same thing,” Liz says. “It’s just emotional remembering that day and how everything started. Little Wish will always remind me of Max.”

The strength of her faith

In the 18 months since she started the foundation, Liz has fulfilled nearly 60 wishes for children, most of whom are patients at Riley Hospital for Children in Indianapolis or Children’s Memorial Hospital in South Bend, Ind.

Besides the inspiration of Max, Liz says she has been guided by her Catholic faith in her efforts to help the children.

“It plays a huge part,” says Liz, a member of Queen of All Saints Parish in Michigan City, Ind., in the Gary Diocese. “If I never went to Queen from preschool through eighth grade, I would have never learned the moral values I have. Growing up Catholic shows you what’s important in life. I have a strong religious belief and a strong belief in God.”

She has needed the strength of her faith as she meets the people she helps. The first wish she fulfilled was for a classmate at Michigan City High School, where Liz is now a senior.

“Tia had a brain tumor,” Liz recalls. “She stopped coming to class because she had cancer. Her wish was to have an iPod [a digital music player]. I was able to grant her wish. She ended up passing away a few weeks later. I’ll always remember her because I knew her, and hers was the first wish I made come true.”

Tia’s mother won’t forget the wish either.

“I cannot tell you how much that little iPod brought to her life,” says Trudy Bettelyoun. “She couldn’t attend school like she wanted or hang out with her friends as she would have liked. She felt everything she loved was being taken away from her. So you can imagine how awesome it was for them to give her back her music. She carried that iPod with her after she filled it with her favorite music. She was extremely happy.

“I was profoundly touched to my heart and soul that Liz would do something so selfless and sweet for another person. It’s a great organization founded by an awesome young lady with a heart of gold.”

While Tia and Max died from cancer, Liz says that the vast majority of the children she has helped still survive. The feeling of making a wish come true for them is incomparable for her.

“There is no other feeling like it,” she says. “You go into the hospital and see a child fighting for their life and you make their day. We went to Riley on Nov. 3 and saw a little boy who had been going through treatments. The social worker and his mom said he never smiled when he was in the hospital. I actually got him to smile and talk. It’s the best feeling in the world.”

‘For every child, there is a story’

Liz raises money for her foundation through donations and a series of fundraisers that have included a hog roast, a 5K run and a murder mystery event.

Many of the “little wishes” that she grants are for electronic devices, but she has also provided a shopping spree, a day at a spa for a girl and her mother, and a collection of new dresses for a child.

“For every child, there is a story,” she says. “When I granted the wish for the girl who wanted some pretty new dresses, she was screaming and jumping around as she tried them on. She was a little Hispanic girl who could only speak Spanish. I just remember how excited she was.”

Liz’s mother remembers the conversation she had with her daughter after they went to Max’s wake at the funeral home.

“I was overcome with emotion about her idea for the foundation,” Therese Niemiec says. “She went home and looked up how to start a nonprofit foundation. I said, ‘This looks like so much work.’ She said, ‘I’m not afraid of work.’ I am very touched and pleased that she wants to do something like this to help children in need. I never thought this would evolve in her life, especially at a young age.”

Liz plans to develop the Little Wish Foundation even more when she heads to college next year. Her hope is to attend Butler University in Indianapolis and major in communications and arts administration. Her long-term goal is to establish a fashion line of clothes that will create awareness for the Little Wish Foundation and help finance it.

That focus comes from seeing the strength and the faith of many of the children who have cancer.

“Being involved in this has made me realize just how strong some people’s faith is,” Liz says. “Even after all they’ve gone through, they have their faith. It makes me realize that what matters at the end of the day are how you handle things and the kind of person you are.”

(For more information about the Little Wish Foundation, log on to the website at www.littlewishfoundation.org.)

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