A Gift Beyond Words

The Dream Foundation offers patients and loved ones dignity and hope during their end-of-life journey.

By Diana Price

Many of us are familiar with the idea of a “bucket list,” or a compilation of things we’d like to do, see, or experience before we die. What if you had to narrow that list down to just one thing? What would the wish of your heart be in your last days? Would you take a trip? Reconcile with a loved one? Eat chocolate ice cream?

As the first national wish-granting organization for adults suffering life-threatening illness, the Dream Foundation has the honor of granting many such wishes. Founded in 1994 by Thomas Rollerson, the foundation, based Santa Barbara, California, will grant its ten-thousandth wish this summer. That’s a lot of dreams come true.

So how do you build a dream? Are magic wands and fairy dust involved? As nice as that would be, the reality is much more practical—but still magical. Each month the staff—comprising a dynamic group of incredible, compassionate women (who might as well be fairy godmothers)—works to grant an average of 100 dreams for adults across the country who have been given less than a year to live and who meet the foundation’s financial criteria. As the staff discusses their love of their work and their commitment to the people they serve, it’s clear that they truly feel that, though they grant wishes, it is they who often receive the biggest gift. “We step in when treatment options have been exhausted,” says Lisbet Frey, one of the foundation’s dream coordinators. “It’s such an honor to be a part of that dreamer’s life.

The variety of dreamers’ wishes is both humbling and inspiring. One 86-year-old woman wanted to see the ocean before she passed; another had never had new bedding and wished for new sheets. Some parents dream of taking their children to a theme park or on a last family vacation; others might dream of meeting a celebrity who has inspired them. Maybe it’s just a dinner out at a local restaurant—a luxury that does not fit into a budget strained by medical bills and prescription costs. In many cases, the request is even simpler: new dentures that allow the recipient to eat real food in his last months; a hearing aid for a grandparent who wants more than anything to hear his grandchildren laugh; a new water heater; or a temporary wheelchair ramp to allow a patient to access her own home.

Erinn Lynch, communications manager at the foundation, says, “the spectrum [of dreams] always surprises people, and it is inspiring—the way the dreams always get back to the core: to connecting with people, of finding peace, of finding closure, of leaving nothing unsaid.”

The Dream Foundation team honors each wish, big or small, reverently, getting to know the dreamer and his or her family and proceeding with compassion and commitment. “It’s so exciting to open each dreamer’s letter,” Lisbet says.

Another of the foundation’s dream coordinators, Emily Mullranin, says, “The coolest thing is to hear what’s in a dreamer’s heart—what’s their truest true wish.”

Once the team gets working on fulfilling the dream—making sure all the medical issues are addressed, making reservations or introductions, lining up volunteers—the process is fueled by the desire to grant not only the dreamer’s last wish but also hope and dignity that will shine brightly in the final days.

Also fueling the process, more practically, are the resources needed to fund the cost of each dream, granted by personal donations and corporate sponsorships. Each year the Dream Foundation receives more dream requests from patients around the country, while available resources become increasingly limited. As a nonprofit organization, the foundation relies on financial contributions and donations of airline miles and hotel points to stay afloat. This generosity—of time, resources, and spirit—helps continue to fund dreamers’ requests. The resources that are provided reflect “the best side of humanity,” says founder Thomas Rollerson, and they allow the foundation to “serve as a bridge of sorts that connects a humble need with a heartfelt response.”

Increasingly, a partnership with hospice providers, both local and national, is helping build that bridge. Carol Brown, chief operating officer of the Dream Foundation, says that the foundation’s hope is that partnerships with hospice and the recent formation of a national hospice advisory board will continue to help raise broad awareness of end-of-life issues and also continue to build funding opportunities and referrals. Some hospice providers don’t have a separate nonprofit arm to help patients with needs or wishes that arise as they care for them at this last stage of life, so a partnership with the Dream Foundation helps both organizations meet the needs of patients and improve the quality of their last days. Ideally, Carol says, the foundation and its hospice partners “can work collectively to build awareness of end-of-life care. We hope to help continue a beautiful legacy of care that has been established by hospices for decades.”

For Thomas and his staff, the work of granting wishes—and the attendant gifts of dignity, hope, and peace—never gets old: “Every dream realized emphasizes the life-affirming gift a dream brings to the recipient and their family during their end-of-life journey. The validation [that results from receiving your wish] at a time when you feel worthless or when your dignity starts to unravel—just to feel like you matter again—is a gift that is without words.”