February 26, 2021

‘I just try to remember that God has a plan for all of us’

Young woman follows her dream to fulfill wishes of children, youths facing cancer

In this 2019 photo, a girl reacts with surprise as she hears about the gift she is receiving from the Little Wish Foundation, a non-profit foundation that Liz Niemiec, right, started when she was 16 to grant wishes to children and teenagers battling cancer. (Submitted photo)

In this 2019 photo, a girl reacts with surprise as she hears about the gift she is receiving from the Little Wish Foundation, a non-profit foundation that Liz Niemiec, right, started when she was 16 to grant wishes to children and teenagers battling cancer. (Submitted photo)

By John Shaughnessy

Like a young fairy godmother, 27-year-old Liz Niemiec has helped grant more than 2,500 wishes to children and teenagers battling cancer in the past 11 years.

Many of the wishes evoke touches of joy, including the ones where a child’s wish of getting a dog leads to a beaming smile for the boy or girl.

Other wishes are beautiful and heartbreaking at the same time, including one that a teenager had for his family.

The teenager—who knew he was dying from cancer—made a wish to have enough money so he could buy presents for the last Christmas he would share with his family.

Then there is the most memorable wish for Niemiec, the one that she fulfilled when she was 16, the one that marked the beginning of her Little Wish Foundation.

“Every one of the wishes is special because of the kids I’ve met, but the one that will stick with me forever is the very first wish we granted,” says Niemiec, an Indianapolis resident. “It was for my high school classmate who sat in front of me in class. Tia stopped coming to class, and she didn’t come back. She had brain cancer.

“We had finally raised a little money to grant one little wish. Her wish was for an iPod [a digital music player].”

Tia filled the iPod with her favorite songs, a source of joy and connection during a time when she could no longer be with her friends. She died several weeks after receiving her wish, but her influence on Niemiec continues.

“I saw her appreciation and her kindness back to me, and that really made me want to continue doing this.”

In the 11 years since that first wish, Niemiec has granted wishes to children and youths in 14 hospitals across the country, including four in Indiana:

Peyton Manning Children’s Hospital at St. Vincent in Indianapolis, Riley Hospital for Children in Indianapolis, Lutheran Hospital in Fort Wayne and Memorial Hospital in South Bend.

While Tia’s impact has stayed strong at the Little Wish Foundation, so have two other influences on Niemiec.

‘My faith continues to help me’

The first of those two influences takes Niemiec back to her days as a student at Queen of All Saints School in the far northern Indiana community of Michigan City.

“I grew up going to a Catholic school through eighth grade,” she says. “It definitely shaped me as a person. I’ve always wanted to help others. That’s what I was taught in my upbringing and my school. They taught me to be a better person, to do my part.

“My faith continues to help me get through difficult times. Praying and looking at other people’s strong faith have helped me, too.”

Her efforts have also been inspired by a child named Max Olson. Both their moms taught at Queen of All Saints School, and Max’s mom was Niemiec’s fifth-grade teacher. The family connection continued when Niemiec was 16, a time when Max died of cancer at the age of 7.

Niemiec went to the funeral home with her mother for Max’s wake. On the drive home, she couldn’t stop thinking of him. She recalled the one wish that he had always longed for, a wish that wasn’t possible while he was undergoing treatments for the disease. Yet when doctors determined there was nothing more they could do for Max, his parents made his wish come true. They gave him a dog.

Seeing the comfort and happiness that gift brought Max, Niemiec also saw how “one little thing can make a difference in someone’s life.” She told her mom that she wanted to honor Max’s too-short life with a plan that would help other children suffering from cancer.

In 2020, Niemiec created another way to honor Max.

‘Please continue to spread this love and kindness’

She wrote a children’s book, Lizzy Girl and the Big Little Wish—a book whose dedication page notes, “To Max. And to all brave kids who have smiled because of him.”

“We started the foundation in 2010, and last year we wanted to celebrate our 10th anniversary, but with COVID, it was a difficult year for everyone, including for a small non-profit,” she says. “The children’s book was a way of commemorating creating the foundation when I was young—and the impact it’s had. I also hoped it would inspire others to help, to lighten other people’s lives.”

Niemiec has made that impact with the help of sponsors, donations and fundraising events. And 100% of the proceeds from the sale of the book go directly to the foundation, whose granting of wishes has included swing sets, musical instruments, sewing machines, shopping sprees, electronic devices and about 50 dogs.

The thank-you notes that Little Wish receives from families show the power of such gifts.

“Thank you for getting Erika an iPad. She plays games and talks with her friends from school. By not attending school, this gives her a chance to see them and she really needed that.”

Another one notes, “I just wanted to thank you again for bringing my son this tremendous joy! He has gone through so much and has wanted this dog for so long. With all the stuff my family has gone through over the last couple of years, it’s really lifting the spirits up of everyone in this family. Please continue to spread this love and kindness to other families.”

While the gifts bring a measure of joy to children, youths and their families, the children and youths who battle cancer continue to have a dramatic influence on Niemiec.

‘You want to give them that joy, that moment’

“I’ve met so many of the kids. I’ve witnessed the darkest moment for a kid, to see how cancer changes their lives,” she says. “When I walk into a room and hear their stories and how their lives have unfolded in battling cancer, it’s really sad. But these kids have a lot of hope. Seeing them battle this gives a perspective on what they’re going through. I admire their bravery.”

In response to them, she tries to provide “a moment of hope, comfort and joy.”

“When you’re a kid and you’re sick, so many special moments are taken away,” she says. “You want to give them that joy, that moment. The best part is getting to see the impact you’ve made when the child gets their wish. You get to see their smile and know you’ve helped in some way.”

She sighs before she adds, “The hardest part is definitely hearing or knowing a child didn’t make it. You see the struggle that they’re going through, that their parents and family are going through. It’s affected me. I’ve witnessed a lot of suffering. We do what we can with the gift we have. We try to give them hope and joy, to make their life a little better.

“I just try to remember that God has a plan for all of us. My faith has made me stronger to keep going.”

So has her relationship with her mother.

‘It’s always been an emotional thing’

When a child has cancer, the journey of struggle and hope, of heartbreak and love becomes the same journey for the child’s parents. The 11-year journey of the Little Wish Foundation has also led to a stronger bond between Liz and Therese Niemiec.

While Liz focuses on the creative side of the foundation, Therese handles the business side. On a deeper level, their connection with cancer-stricken children and their parents has reinforced their belief that the child-parent bond should never be taken for granted, especially in terms of the amount of time that children and parents get to share in life.

“It’s just such an interesting and dynamic relationship we have,” Liz says. “We’ve always worked on this together. She’s always believed in my dream and my vision to make the Little Wish Foundation come true. It’s great to have a mother who believes in you so much.”

Therese gets emotional when she talks about her daughter. Her tears flow as she says, “As a mom, it’s an incredible experience to work with your daughter. From the beginning, it was great to see her start it. And it became my passion, too.

“It’s always been an emotional thing—just the way it started with the innocence and the pure joy in her heart, to make her want to make a difference in the lives of kids who have cancer.”

Both of their thoughts return to the children, the youths and their families.

“To see how this has impacted kids’ lives, I just want it to go on,” Liz says.

Therese adds, “We keep in touch with some of the families and form a bond with them. That cancer journey is so tough. If we can give them a smile and have tears of joy, it’s worth all the work.

“It just ties into our faith of living a life of giving to others in need. I mean, that’s what Jesus did.”

(For more information about the Little Wish Foundation or to buy a copy of Lizzy Girl and the Big Little Wish, visit its website, www.littlewishfoundation.org.)

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