Making sick kids’ dreams come true

For 25 years the non-profit Reach for a Dream Foundation has been making the wishes of sick children come true.

From its first dream back in 1988, when it gave a child a birthday celebration, to the present day, the organisation has fulfilled the dreams of thousands of kids who suffer from life-threatening illnesses. It celebrates its 25th anniversary in 2013 and is looking to do even more this year.

“We fulfil six wishes a day,” says Natalie Lazaris, the organisation’s new business development manager. “That’s nearly 2 200 wishes every year but we want to ramp it up this year especially.”

reach-dream-logo-smallBased on the Make-a-Wish Foundation in the US, the organisation was founded by former Randburg Rotary Club president Owen Parnell. It received its official name in 1991, and has stated its core purpose as “fulfilling the dreams of children of any race, colour and creed between the ages of three and 18, faced with a life-threatening illness”.


reach-dream1Four-year-old Jaiden-Zain Smit had expressed a wish to see racing cars up closeIt was the turn of young Jaiden-Zain Smit on Saturday, 16 March. The four-year-old, who has Fanconi Anaemia, a rare bone marrow disorder, had expressed a wish to see racing cars up close and Reach for a Dream took him behind the scenes at the Kyalami motor racing circuit in Midrand, between Johannesburg and Pretoria.

“He’s mad about cars,” says the boy’s brother Donovan.

Fanconi Anaemia is an inherited blood disease which affects children from all ethnic groups, but is especially prevalent in Ashkenazi Jews and South Africa’s Afrikaner population.

Research states that instead of the usual one in 350 000 births, Fanconi Anaemia occurs in one in 22 000 births in South Africa. It prevents marrow from producing enough white and red blood cells as well as platelets, and can lead to complete bone marrow failure, an increased risk of cancer, and death at around 20 to 30 years of age.

As a result of the disease, young Jaiden has no thumbs. He’s registered with the organisation’s Pretoria branch, and his dream was made possible through the generosity of national sponsor Clyde Bergemann, the African division of the Germany-based energy solutions company.

“They’re passionate about the cause and making dreams come true, so we thought the two were a good mix,” says Lazaris.

The pits at Kyalami are hot and deafeningly noisy, but for a little boy who loves cars, it was the best place, although young Jaiden took a while to loosen up and gain the confidence to walk around freely.

“We always advise the parents to take a before and after photo, because the kids tend to be overwhelmed at first, but by the time it comes to go home they don’t want to leave.”

After inspecting the work going on in the pits and taking in one or two races, it was on to the pile of presents that awaited. Despite his physical disability, Jaiden adeptly pulled, ripped, and tore open the gifts, which included a radio-controlled car.


reach-dream2Parents are advised to take a before and after photo, because the kids tend to be overwhelmed at first, but by the time it comes to go home they don’t want to leave (Images: Janine Erasmus,“Dreams vary,” says Lazaris. “We have children that ask for the simplest things, like cooking pizza for their family. Then you get others that want to meet the president or ride in a supercar. Little boys are likely to ask for something to do with cars, while girls still like their Barbies.”

The organisation allocates 78% of funds raised to fulfilling dreams and in 25 years has never turned one down, whether it involves a bedroom makeover, a shopping spree, a new laptop or bicycle, meeting a sporting hero, or being a policeman.

“People are willing to bend over backwards for us,” says Lazaris. “Of course, it all depends on the doctor’s approval, especially when travelling. But if the child is too sick to travel, we bring the dream to them – we once rented a warehouse and created a Disney World for a little one.”

The organisation tries to create an environment that will distract the child from his or her illness and help them to forget about hospitals and injections, even if it’s just for a day.

“It can be heart-breaking, but ultimately rewarding. You build bonds with the family, but even if the child passes away the family remains in contact with us for years afterwards – it’s then that you realise the impact that you have on everyone involved.”

That sadness becomes inspiration to do more, Lazaris says.

“We believe that there’s a connection between brain and body, and by giving the child what they’ve always wanted we’re giving them a reason to fight. We’re showing them what’s out there in the world.”

Through its other national projects such as Queen for a Day, Captain Courage, Camp Sunshine and Show You Care Send a Bear, the organisation touches the lives of sick children around the country and gives them hope.