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From wisher to wish-granter, woman makes children smile as a volunteer

GRAND FORKS -- When Brittany Dvorak sees the smile of a child whose wish has been granted by the Make-A-Wish Foundation, she knows how much it means to them. "It literally feels like the whole world stops and you don't feel anything bad," the Gra...

Brittany Dvorak, a UND student who once had leukemia, talks about her time with the Make-A-Wish Foundation as a wish-granter. (Jesse Trelstad/Grand Forks Herald)
Brittany Dvorak, a UND Student who once had leukemia, talks about her time with hte Make-A-Wish Foundation as a wish-recipient to be a wish-granter. (Jesse Trelstad/Grand Forks Herald)

GRAND FORKS - When Brittany Dvorak sees the smile of a child whose wish has been granted by the Make-A-Wish Foundation, she knows how much it means to them.

"It literally feels like the whole world stops and you don't feel anything bad," the Grand Forks native said. "You just literally freeze in that time. These kids are just gleaming with light, and their smiles are just so happy and they are so excited."

The wish-granter was once on the receiving end of a wish. In 2008, at age 13, Dvorak was diagnosed with leukemia, a cancer of the blood that limits a patient's ability to fight infection.

More than a year later, Make-A-Wish volunteers told the 15-year-old she was going to swim with the dolphins in Mexico.

Now, eight years after she was diagnosed, the 21-year-old UND student wants to do everything she can to help children who suffer life-threatening diseases through those hard times.

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"I just wanted to be a part of it because I truly know how special a wish is," she said. "I truly know how much it means not only for the patient but the whole family. I wanted to get involved because I knew how powerful a wish of the Make-A-Wish Foundation really is."

Wish granted

Dvorak's battle with leukemia wasn't easy, not to say that anyone battling cancer has a clean road to recovery. The first signs of the illness came Oct. 15, 2008, after a chest scan showed a grapefruit-sized tumor pushing against her airway, according to newspaper archives.

After arriving at the Mayo Clinic Hospital in Rochester, Minn., doctors told her she had T-cell ALL, a form of leukemia.

She underwent a biopsy and steroid treatments just to find out if she had leukemia, and what followed was a line of spinal taps, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, marrow tests, physical therapy and other doctor appointments.

She noted at one point a spinal tap temporarily paralyzed her almost completely, and all she could do was move her head. She also lost her hair.

The diagnosis also meant she no longer could play sports-one of her passions was playing basketball. The end of her athletic career was like a kick in the face, she said, but she was determined to work past it and survive the battle, with the goal of getting back on the court.

So when Dvorak was told she was going to swim with the dolphins as a part of a wish granted by Make-A-Wish, she saw it as a chance to get back to being a child.

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"Going on this wish was a way to escape and be myself again," she said. "There are no doctors, no one is telling you what to do. I can finally be myself again."

Dvorak had swum with dolphins before, and she loved it so much that she made it her wish for the foundation.

Though medical complications delayed the wish twice, the trip took the Dvorak family to the west coast of Mexico before arriving in Puerto Vallarta for her swim.

Giving back

The happiness Dvorak felt during her Make-A-Wish trip was one she wanted other children with life-threatening diseases to experience, she said. It's part of the reason why she became a volunteer for the foundation. She saw it as a way to say thank you to all of the people who supported her through her battle with leukemia.

"I can never thank everyone enough, and so, in a certain way, it is my only way of giving back," she said. "You never know when time changes and you will have a family member receiving a wish. This is my way of giving back."

Founded in 1980, the national nonprofit has granted more than 270,000 wishes across the U.S. and its territories, according to its website. The North Dakota division was founded in 1985 and has granted 800 wishes, according to the state's main office in Fargo. It has 130 volunteers, the majority of whom are wish-granters.

The mission of Make-A-Wish has changed over the years, said Billi Jo Zielinski. It has gone from helping children diagnosed with terminal diseases to granting wishes to children with life-threatening illnesses, she said.

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Though many Make-A-Wish volunteers have not had a wish granted through the foundation, volunteers like Dvorak are not uncommon.

Those who volunteer for Make-A-Wish are focused on making sure children have a chance to be children without worrying about the medical challenges that follow a diagnosis, at least for the time they go on a trip. The volunteers also make the wish-granting more than just telling a child they are going to Walt Disney World.

Volunteers such as Dvorak make that experience even more special, Zielinski said, because they can relate to that child.

"She is really able to connect with the children," Zielinski said, adding she is a good leader, outgoing and is thoughtful. "She has a unique perspective."

Joining Make-A-Wish in October 2013, Dvorak became a wish-granter in March 2015 and has granted wishes for two children. She shared with the Herald photos of the children and recalled their happiness shown through their big smiles.

In one event, she and others helped bring out puzzle pieces for a child to put together to form an image of Disney characters. Once the child put it together-literally and figuratively-that he was going to Walt Disney World, it brought tears to her eyes. Her second wish was for a child who was diagnosed with leukemia.

"It's like a pregame," she said.

Thank you in a smile

The most rewarding part is seeing the reaction of families and knowing that granting a wish is a way to help children midway through their fight with disease, she said. She understands the sentiment of not feeling like yourself while taking medication or listening to confusing medical jargon, and she said being granted a wish is a way for children to regain themselves.

"It's just a perfect way to give back, especially with this time of the year," she said. "It just makes you stop and think how special life is and how quick things can change."

Dvorak is pursuing a degree in communication with a minor in sports business, but she would like to pursue a career that would allow her to help others as she has done with Make-A-Wish.

"I think it would be fun doing something for Make-A-Wish as an employee," she said, adding she doesn't care about getting paid but rather about having a career in which she can get more involved. "As a volunteer, there is only so much you can do with your time."

But for now, she plans to continue her work as a volunteer, adding that making a child smile with a wish is so powerful words can't describe it.

"Even seeing the picture from their trip, you get goosebumps seeing how much it means to them," she said. "You can just see it in their smiles. That's thank-you enough."

Brittany Dvorak shares her story as a recipient of the Make-A-Wish Foundation and talks about some of the time she's spent helping grant wishes for other children. (Jesse Trelstad/Grand Forks Herald)
Brittany Dvorak shares her story as a recipient of the Make-A-Wish Foundation and now some of the time she's spent helping grant wishes for children. (Jesse Trelstad/Grand Forks Herald)

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