Make a Wish: Creating Ripples of Kindness
How two men made it their mission to make sick kids happy.
A puppy named Sky…a video recording studio in the basement… a beach getaway complete with make-believe pirates… a dream trip to Paris… a private tour of a zoo and cuddle time with baby otters… becoming a full-fledged national park ranger. These are some of the half-million wishes one foundation has granted to critically ill children worldwide since 1980.
It all started when Frank Shankwitz had a chance to make a wish come true for a 7-year-old boy with terminal leukemia. An Arizona Highway Patrol motorcycle officer with a troubled past, Shankwitz survived a near-fatal accident during a high-speed pursuit.
As part of Frank's rehabilitation, Police Chief Sgt. Eddie Newman asked him to take his mind off his troubles and help someone else. He suggested Shankwitz spend time with 7-year-old Chris, whose dying wish was to be a Highway Patrol motorcycle officer like Jon Baker and Frank "Ponch" Poncherello on the TV show CHiPS.
An unlikely friendship was born. The boy inspired Shankwitz, 38 and at rock bottom to follow a new path, which ultimately led him to create the Make-A-Wish Foundation.
The June 2019 biographical drama “Wish Man” is based on the life of Shankwitz (who is not Jewish, but has East European ancestry on his father’s side). “My father’s was the fun side of the family. I was only with them ages 2 to 5. My mother kidnapped me at age 5 and took me away,” the retired cop told Aish.com in a phone interview from his home in Prescott, Arizona.
The traumatic separation foreshadowed a rocky youth, with his mother abandoning Shankwitz when he was 11. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that his mission in life became to make children happy.
After his near-fatal motorcycle accident, Shankwitz had no heartbeat or pulse for almost four minutes, even though an emergency-room nurse happened on the scene immediately and performed CPR.
It took a long time for him to heal physically and emotionally. His counselor insisted, “God spared you for a reason. It’s up to you to find that reason.”
The reason showed up in adoring Chris. Shankwitz, a father of two, enjoyed working with children. “When they told me about Chris, knowing this boy was going to die – he knew that also – I couldn’t imagine that for a 7-year-old. Any kid that likes motorcycles, that’s an instant bond for a motorcycle officer.”
Frank with Chris on his special motorcycle.
Chris told Shankwitz, “I wish I could be a motorcycle officer,” touching the wings on his uniform with his fingers. Wish granted! Armed with a pint-size uniform, Shankwitz led several colleagues to Chris’s house to make him a full highway patrolman. The boy rode to greet them on his battery-operated motorcycle.
Then Shankwitz ordered custom-made wings for his little buddy. “That’s when I got the word he was in the hospital in a coma. When I pinned the wings on his uniform, he died a couple of minutes later.”
Today the Make-A-Wish Foundation is a global organization that grants a child's wish somewhere in the world on an average of every 28 minutes.
A Holocaust Survivor’s Wishes
Another wish man was an industrious and generous Holocaust survivor, Henri Landwirth. Born in Antwerp, Belgium, in 1927, Landwirth and his family were separated and became prisoners in the Nazi death and labor camps during World War II. He spent several years as a teenager in Auschwitz and Mauthausen. He and his twin sister reunited as orphans after the war.
Henri Landwirth with kids at his non-profit resort.
Landwirth worked his way to America on a freight ship, arriving in New York with $20 and little English. After serving in the Army, he used his GI benefits to learn hotel management.
He moved to Florida in 1954 and managed the Starlight Motel in Cocoa Beach, near Cape Canaveral. Those were the heady early days of American space exploration. He became friends with the original Mercury 7 astronauts, who bunked down at the Starlight as their temporary residence.
This blossomed into a successful, innovative hotel industry career. Landwirth, like Shankwitz, had a heart for helping children with critical illnesses and used his resources to do so.
The hotelier started Give Kids the World in Florida. A girl named Amy had leukemia and a wish to visit Orlando’s theme parks. Landwirth offered to provide a free stay for Amy and her family. However, the remainder of Amy's travel plans took too long to arrange, and she died before realizing her dream.
Landwirth was determined no child in those circumstances would ever be failed again. “His desire to ensure that Amy's story would never repeat itself is a mission Give Kids The World has fulfilled since 1986,” according to the organization’s website.
“Landwirth enlisted the support of colleagues in the hospitality and tourism industries to assist him in bringing these special families to Central Florida within 24 hours if need be. He called the project Give Kids The World, because that is just what he intended to do – provide magical experiences with a vacation that means the world to children with critical illnesses and their families.”
The program grew into Give Kids the World Village, an 84-acre resort in Central Florida that provides weeklong, cost-free vacations to children with critical illnesses and their families. They enjoy accommodations in furnished villas, tickets to theme parks, transportation, meals and daily entertainment.
Thanks to individuals, corporations and partnering wish-granting organizations, Give Kids the World Village has hosted more than 167,000 families from all 50 states and 76 countries.
“I’ve been there several times,” says Shankwitz. “It’s the most fantastic place there is. The kids have fun because they’re with their peers.”
He remembers Landwirth, who passed away in 2018, as an amazing man who never wanted publicity. “It wasn’t about him, it was about the kids.”
As both men showed, a simple act of kindness can have a ripple effect. Everyone can be a hero – just help somebody else.