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September 5, 1997


Make A Wish

Shariq Siddiqui

Geeta and Uday Joshi
Geeta and Uday Joshi
When little Santosh Holkar told "aunty" he had always wanted to own a bicycle, little did he realise he'd actually get one. And when he did, Santosh rode it up and down the wards of J J Hospital, Bombay, much to the amusement of the staff and the patients. Santosh even asked his mother to bring his sister from their village, so that he could give her a ride. He had asked for a "double-seat" cycle for the same reason.

Santosh is under treatment for cancer of the pancreas.

Yet, he was smiling. The Make A Wish Foundation, India, was in business. For that's what they do. Put smiles on the faces of children who have very little to smile about. Since it commenced its activities in April, 1996, the Make A Wish Foundation of India has helped many "a terminally ill child realise its heart's desire."

It all started when Geeta and Uday Joshi took their son, Gandhar, to the US for a bone marrow transplant. The doctors had already warned told the Joshis that Gandhar's leukaemia might not give him very long to live. Meanwhile, a social worker put the Joshis in touch with the Make A Wish Foundation of America. Volunteers spoke to Gandhar and found out what he really craved for.

A visit to Disneyworld!

Rajesh Vasandani
Rajesh Vasandani
The foundation flew him and his parents to Orlando, Florida, to live his dream. Until he died a few months later, Gandhar could not stop talking about the fun he had had in Disneyworld. The Joshis returned to India, determined to bring similar smiles to the faces of terminally ill children.

Technically speaking, any child under 18, who has been diagnosed with a terminal illness or life-threatening medical condition, is eligible to be a wish child. Social or financial background is not a criterion. The foundation has, since its inception, fulfilled the wishes of 70 children from all over India.

Ideally, wish children are recommended by doctors or relatives. A wish team then visits the child and its family to find about the child's wish and how it is to be fulfilled. The child's family is not expected to pay anything at all for fulfilling the wish. "Even if the parents (of the wish child) are relatively well-off," says Geeta, "they cannot really be expected to pay attention to fulfilling the desires of the children, amidst all the running around they have to do."

It is not easy work, going to hospitals, talking to doctors and parents and seeking out wish children. The foundation also has to make do with a small, fluctuating strength of volunteers. As a result, their doors are constantly open for more volunteers. Every once in a while, people offer their time and service. But not everybody finds it possible to carry on for long.

Renuka Chauhan
Renuka Chauhan
"The movement has yet to pick up in India," says Geeta. "Abroad, you have parents, even doctors, contacting the organisation. Here we yet have to make our presence felt. So we have to seek out wish children." The foundation is considering a media campaign to make more people aware of its work.

A little bald head peeps out from behind a wall at Wadia Children's Hospital, Bombay. "My name," she proclaims proudly, "is Renuka Chauhan." Six-year-old Renuka is a wish child. The daughter of a tailor from Ambernath, near Bombay, Renuka is being treated for neuroblastoma. Her anxious parents remain blissfully unaware of the gravity of her disorder. They are only anxious to get her operated soon, so she doesn't miss out on her school.

"She loves her lessons. But she's so restless. She plays with everyone she knows. I have difficulty getting her to sleep," says Renuka's mother, as Renuka tries to skip over her handkerchief.

Little Rupesh stares shyly at Renuka as she chatters with Geeta Joshi. He too has come to Wadia Hospital for his chemotherapy. It's been a while since he and his parents have seen their little village the Ratnagiri district of Maharashtra. They spend a few days each week with different relatives in Bombay, while making trips to the hospital for endless cycles of therapy, tests and reports. His mother can't help but smile as she complains about the big carrom board they have to lug around.

"My son doesn't settle for small things. He wanted the biggest carrom board there was," she says. "He'll even sit and play (carrom) alone, if there's no one around to play with him. And we used to worry about his getting bored in Bombay!"
Rupesh has lymphoma. But he doesn't know that. He juggles the drip nozzle hanging from the back of his hand as he attempts a delicate shot on the carrom board he wished for.

"I'll sing you my best song," Renuka interrupts, and starts off with a Marathi song she learnt at school. "My doll also likes this song," she ends. Renuka loves her doll. "She plays with me. She laughs, and she cries also." She is talking about the doll presented to her by the Make A Wish Foundation. "She is so big," continues Renuka, and almost topples over as she stretches her hands apart to explain.

The foundation's activities are funded by individual donations. Often, an organisation makes a donation or a waiver during the fulfillment of a wish. The Taj Group of Hotels has given free stays to wish children. Sahara India Airlines has provided free tickets more than once. So has Esselworld, an amusement park nearBombay. "Even when we go to buy toys (for the wish children), the shopkeepers don't ask for payment," says Geeta, who does most of the buying.

Uday, for his part, takes time off from his busy schedule as an architect to do administrative work of the foundation.

The foundation's operations are based in and around Bombay for the present. "Yet, most of our wish-kids have been from other parts of India. That's because people come from all over India to Bombay for treatment," says Ms Fernandes, a volunteer.

Most of the "wish-kids" come from poor families. Many are from small towns, lead simple lives and have simple fantasies. Quite a few of the wishes are fulfilled by small gifts like toys. One little boy from Orissa yearned for a Walkman. And, more than once, the foundation has arranged a birthday party in a children's ward.

Sachin Palkar with Shahrukh Khan
Sachin Palkar with Shahrukh
Celebrities come close to the top on the 'most wanted' wish-list. HIV-positive Kahkashan thrilled when she actually got to meet Aamir Khan. Anil Kapoor has also been part of a wish. But it was Shahrukh Khan who caught Sachin Palkar's fancy. Cricket was only his second love. Imagine his joy when Shahrukh Khan presented him with a magnificent cricket bat. Sachin is HIV positive.

Some wishes require a good amount of thought before they can be fulfilled. It is difficult to explain the concept of red tape to a child whose only wish is to have a TV set in his ward. Six-year-old Paresh Bhogaonkar can't bear to miss out on his favourite cartoons. He is being treated for thalassaemia at Tilak Hospital, Bombay. Paresh spends a lot of time in wards. No bats or bicycles for him though; cartoons are what make him tick.

The matter is being discussed at the volunteers' meeting. Whether or not the TV is to be treated as a donation to the hospital is just one of the items of debate. The volunteers, who juggle their jobs or their colleges with their work for the foundation, meet every Saturday. Some are retired, and hence have more time. But everyone pitches in as much as they can.

Each case is carefully reviewed before the foundation commits itself to a wish. Everything must be in line with the recommendations of Make A Wish, International. It is only then that the volunteers decide how the wish is actually to be executed.

The volunteers' meeting
The volunteer's meeting
Once in a while, says Geeta, the parents make the wish for the child. Geeta recalls a case where a wish child asked for a car. This was against the foundation's guidelines and was one of the few requests that was not accepted. The foundation also gets requests for monetary help. But, as Uday points out, "There are other organisations for doing that. If we start arranging for financial aid, that will dilute our efforts."

Such instances, though, are not frequent. Most parents are delighted to see someone make their child's life a little happier, and leave the child to decide. "There was a case where the father was initially sceptical. But, after he accompanied his daughter on the trip she wanted, he was overflowing with appreciation and gratitude. We found it very difficult to refuse his presents," recalls Geeta.

Tiffany Mascarenhas had brain stem cancer. She hadn't moved or spoken in days. But when Simba, the lion, walked straight out of The Lion King and cuddled up to her, she smiled. She even spoke to Simba, much to the surprise of her doctors. Tiffany is no more, but her chuckles remain a fond memory for the volunteers and for her mother, Pamela.

"First, she said she'd love a book on Cinderella. So they gave her the book," says Pamela. "Mrs Joshi continued to remain in touch with us. When Tiffany went into a coma, she asked us what Tiffany was fond of. I told her how Tiffany adored The Lion King." The foundation organised a little party, Tiffany's last. "Tiffany was so active that day," recalls Pamela with a sigh.

Hemant with his parents
Hemant with his parents
The relationship doesn't end once the wish has been fulfilled. When the volunteers go round to the hospitals, they often come across previous wish kids. The parents dutifully report their child's progress. They even seek advice. "Earlier, we had to spend some time explaining our mission to the doctors," says a volunteer. Even that is changing as the foundation gets better recognised.

"Make A Wish Foundation, right?" asks a smiling doctor, as Geeta Joshi stands explaining to Renuka's mother why water must be boiled before it is given to Renuka to drink. It has been three months since Renuka got her doll.

Eight-year-old Hemant just can't wipe the grin off his face. He is going to "see" Bombay today. He settles awkwardly in the first car he has ever entered. They don't have too many automobiles in his little village in central Maharashtra. Once every few weeks, Hemant and his parents hitch a 12-hour ride in a milk lorry to come to Bombay for his therapy.

Hemant had never been to a big city before his neuroblastoma made it compulsory. But he decided to make the most of the opportunity. He smiles excitedly at Geeta Joshi, his tourist guide for the day. His parents are no less excited. All three are missing Hemant's sister, who was crying because she was left at home while Hemant prepared for his tour of the city. "Bai (Lady), it is very nice of you to do this," Hemant's mother says.

But Geeta doesn't stop. She fusses over Hemant's bare feet. He left his slippers behind in the truck, explains his father. "So what?" says Geeta, and orders her driver to get some footwear for Hemant. She spends the whole day with the family, introducing them to the sights, sounds and smells of Bombay city.

Hemant at the zoo
Hemant at the zoo
The zoo, the aquarium, the Gateway of India, Marine Drive and the bustle of Bombay are exquisite novelties for the simple, rustic folk. At the end of a hectic day, Hemant is still beaming. The foundation relaxes, one more wish has been successfully fulfilled. But there are many more wish kids. And many more smiles to go.

Geeta and Uday Joshi: Jewella Miranda
Renuka Chauhan and Hemant: Shariq Siddiqui
Rajesh Vasandani and Saurav: Courtesy, The Make A Wish Foundation, India

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