By Gina McGalliard
When Tracy Arminio's 3-year-old son Dante was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia in October of last year, the Rady Children's hospital, which was treating Dante, gave her information about the Make-A-Wish Foundation.
At first, she thought the foundation only granted wishes to terminally ill children. Because Dante's condition has over a 90 percent cure rate, she thought he might not qualify. But after finding out Make-A-Wish grants wishes to any child with a life-threatening illness, representatives from the foundation came to meet Dante. Now 4 years old, he must endure an additional 2 1/2 years of treatment.
"We just finished our first year of treatment, and he has another 2 1/2 years of treatment," said Arminio, although she also said her son's prognosis was good.
Tracy Arminio also wondered if it would be best to wait until Dante was old enough to verbalize a wish, but Make-A-Wish prefers to grant wishes when the child is experiencing treatment, not after. Because Dante loves Disney characters, a week-long trip to Walt Disney World was arranged, during which he and his family will visit the Magic Kingdom, Epcot, the Animal Kingdom and Disney/MGM Studios.
On Dec. 12, Make-A-Wish held a dinner at the Hotel Del Coronado for six San Diego children and their families, including Dante, who will be making a trip to Disney World in the coming months. The evening included a deejay from the KSON radio show "Cliff and Company."
"We had six kids, but what they all had in common was a life-threatening illness and that they had a wish to go to Disney World," said Chris Sichel, a Make-A-Wish representative who was present that night. Partway through the evening, to the surprise of both the children and their parents, Mickey Mouse himself made an appearance.
"It was a surprise to us, too," said Tracy Arminio, even though she had an inkling that there was going to be a surprise when she was told to bring her camera. "They got a lot of time with Mickey, which was a great prelude to the trip to Florida. It was a really beautiful evening." The children were also given knapsacks filled with various items.
"He was very excited," said Tracy Arminio of Dante's reaction to seeing Mickey Mouse. "He said that when we go to Florida, Mickey would remember seeing him."
"They were amazed," said Sichel of the children's reaction. "They shouted for Mickey. It was beautiful, and really surpassed their expectations."
According to Sichel, the very first wish granted by the Make-A-Wish Foundation in 1980 was a trip to Disneyland. Since then, Disney wishes remain one of the most popular wishes selected by children the foundation serves.
"Disney has been our greatest partner. It is one of our most popular wishes," said Sichel.
Of what Make-A-Wish does for the children it grants wishes to, Sichel said, "We like to come into a family's life when things might be kind of dark and we like to get them thinking about the future," he said. "We find that experience can be very transforming. It has the ability to change the entire outlook that the child and family was experiencing. It gives them a moment of time where everything stops." He also said that the organization's mission is to bring "strength, hope and joy" to the children and their families, and that the organization has several adult volunteers who themselves had wishes granted as children.
Dante will be staying with his parents Tracy and Vito Arminio and 14-month old twin sisters at a resort called Give Kids the World, which is a hotel close to Disney property that specifically caters to children visiting Disney World through Make-A-Wish. Sichel said that this allows the families to be with others who understand what they are going through.
During their visit, "they'll have VIP treatment," said Sichel, which will include no waiting in line for any of the park's attractions.
"While they're there, there is no detail that they need to worry about," he said. "Our plan is that the families won't have anything to worry about. They'll just be focused on that time together."
The trips to Disney World are part of Make-A-Wish's second annual "A Season of Wishes," which started Nov. 17 and will last until Dec. 31. The goal of the campaign is to raise $100,000 for children of San Diego. The event was created by the Southern California chapters of Make-A-Wish and holds several events during the holiday season to raise funds to grant even more children wishes in 2008.
For more information on the Make-A-Wish Foundation or to donate or sponsor a child's wish, please visit www.wishsandiego.org or www.wish.org. For more information about A Season of Wishes, visit www.aseasonofwishes.org. Contributions are tax deductible.