By Chris Bavender
Twelve years ago, Liz Niemiec watched as her fifth-grade teacher’s son, Max, battled childhood cancer. Diagnosed at age 3, Max passed away when he was 7.
“It was eye-opening to me, and I felt it was just extremely unfair that he went through what he did at such a young age,” said Niemiec, who was 16 when Max died.
At Max’s wake, she saw a photo hanging above his casket of him holding onto his beloved puppy, “Chewy,” a gift from his parents.
“It made me realize just how special and meaningful a gift can mean for a child going through cancer,” she said. “For Max, his puppy meant so much. He was a friend, a moment of joy, a distraction, happiness. I wanted to bring that kind of ‘little’ gift to other kids going through cancer, one that would also bring comfort, hope and joy.”
That sparked the idea for the Little Wish Foundation. The premise is simple: To grant wishes to children fighting cancer. The wishes cost between $300 to $800, with $1,000 being available for a “Max” gift if a child wishes for a dog.
Niemiec started small, granting wishes at South Bend Children’s Memorial (now known as Beacon Children’s Hospital), where Max had received treatment. Today, Carmel-based Little Wish is granting wishes monthly to 14 children’s hospitals across seven states, from California to New York, with some cities in between, including Indiana.
“We are so lucky that all of these people we work with at every single hospital are wonderful people with hearts of gold, simply put,” Niemiec said. “They want to bring their patients any kind of joy they can, and so we offer another great option to do so.”
Little Wish has granted more than 3,000 wishes to date.
“Our vision from Day 1 has been, ‘Every child, everywhere, deserves their Little Wish,’” said Niemiec.
Ashlynn Eldridge received one of those wishes. The 11-year-old was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in November 2021 and is receiving treatment at Peyton Manning Children’s Hospital.
“We heard about Little Wish from her doctor, and she applied on her own,” said Ashley Eldridge, Ashlynn’s mom. “She told me she wanted to pick a shopping spree. She loves to shop, so she picked the stores she loves to buy from. She picked Amazon, Hollister, Aeropostale, Finish Line and Victoria’s Secret. As a parent, it was great to see her wish come true and see her smile.”
The Indian Creek Elementary fifth-grader’s wish meant the world to her.
“She thinks it’s great to have Little Wish to keep kids’ hope alive and well,” Ashley said. “She said they need things to help them not think about what they are going through.”
And both agree Niemiec is “great” for what she does.
“Kids are in need of comfort and compassion when dealing with such a big thing as cancer, they need love,” Ashley said. “This shows love and effort on Liz’s part, that she cares for others to go out of her way to do this.”
Wish requests run the gamut, with electronics being the most common.
“iPads, tablets, phones, laptops, gaming systems, etc. These are things that kids can bring with them to the hospitals and can be a source of entertainment for them,” Niemiec said. “We also get a lot of requests for shopping sprees. The wish requests really do vary, though.”
And there are always a handful of puppy requests.
“Always the most exciting, for sure,” Niemiec said.
Little Wish had plans to expand before the COVID-19 pandemic began. Niemiec said there has always been a great demand for the nonprofit’s services.
“As you can imagine, we were majorly affected by all the ways COVID had entered our lives, so we really had no choice but to pause our plans while navigating how to operate and fundraise throughout the pandemic,” she said. “It was incredibly difficult, and still is, adjusting to how Little Wish operates now. However, we’re excited to say that we are currently discussing picking up those plans again to open up our wish granting to a few more hospitals this year.”
Niemiec used to frequently be on-site at hospitals when wishes was granted, but COVID has also changed that.
“We have been shipping wishes directly to the kids’ homes mostly now, and it’s all been very virtual. It’s a sad change for us all, but we are hopeful that we will be able to have our ‘Little Wish delivery’ experience again one day, hopefully soon,” Niemiec said. “I’ve personally had a difficult time not being able to see any kids in over two years and witness the impact firsthand, since it had been such a huge part of my life for almost 12 years now. I am so looking forward to the day when I can hand someone their Little Wish again and see them smile.”
And it’s those smiles that means so much to Niemiec.
“Seeing a child’s face light up when receiving their Little Wish is immeasurable, and the smiles speak for themselves,” Niemiec said. “That true moment of happiness and hope is the sole reason I want to keep doing this 12 years later. It’s pure joy.”
The Little Wish Foundation has two full-time employees and one part-time employee as well as a board of directors. It also has a philanthropic women’s group, Ladies of Little Wish, that helps with fundraising, awareness and volunteer activities.
Like most nonprofits, donations for Little Wish come in various ways. The organization hosts live fundraisers, its largest being the Golden Dandelion Gala, held each year in the Indianapolis area.
Little Wish will host its Black and White fundraiser from 5:30 to 9:30 p.m. May 13 in Carmel at the Indiana Design Center. Tickets are available at one.bidpal.net/bw/welcome.
Little Wish also has campaign initiatives, usually during Childhood Cancer Awareness Month in September and near the holidays and other specified times. A donation option is always accessible on the website.
Copies of Niemiec’s children’s book, “Lizzy Girl and the Big Little Wish!”, are also available on the website as well as Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Walmart online — with 100 percent of proceeds from the book going to the Little Wish Foundation.
Corporate sponsors are also a significant part of helping fund wishes throughout the year, with companies hosting fundraisers on the organization’s behalf or matching donations.
“The fundraising efforts vary slightly each year, but there are a lot of wonderful people out there who truly just want to help in any way they can.”
Learn more at LittleWishFoundation.org.