Inside the life of the ‘Wish Lady’

Category:  News
Wednesday, March 22nd, 2017 at 4:29 PM

Stepping off the fifth-floor elevators of the Renaissance Center in Erie, you’re greeted by two wooden doors, the left one with “Make-A-Wish” across the center of it. From the outside, it looks like your typical office, but on the inside, it is anything but ordinary; it is a place where wishes are granted, where dreams come true.

Jan Stork, referred to quite often as the “Wish Lady,” has served as the senior regional director of Make-A-Wish Greater Pennsylvania and West Virginia for the past 20 years. While previously working for Harborcreek Youth Services, Stork attended a fundraising workshop and met the person who, at the time, was in her current position. A phone call came two weeks later, a job offer waiting for Stork on the other end.

In her 20 years on the job, one she describes as the “perfect job for me,” Stork has seen a lot, both happy and devastating. “Well, I think from a personal standpoint, it would be when a child passes away,” Stork said, acknowledging the hardest part of her job. “We get to know a lot of the kids. We don’t get to know all of them because we cover such a large area, but we do get to know them, and even if we don’t know them, losing a child is just the worst part of our job.”

Though there’s an undeniable mortality Stork and her staff face in their line of work, overall, Stork considers herself “fortunate that 80 percent of our kids are still living and go on to live long lives, but that 20 percent is devastating.”

Despite the difficulties the job presents, the smiles, wishes granted, and the belief in magic provides a constant stream of happiness within the organization.

Take wish kid, Danielle, for example. A young girl who, after being approved by her doctor to go swim with the dolphins, took a turn and ended up in the hospital, asleep and not responding. Words of encouragement from her mom, lying next to her in bed had what some would call a miraculous effect. Two days later, Danielle woke up, the first words out of her mouth asking, “When do we get to go swim with the dolphins?”

There is also wish kid Michael, a 5-year- old boy turned superhero, known to the rescued citizens of Pittsburgh as “Beetle Boy,” the “hero in a hard shell.” No matter the wish granted, Stork and her staff have seen the incredible effect firsthand.

“So, we talk a lot about the power of a wish,” Stork said, “And sometimes, that is the power of a wish, to know that it can make that much of a difference in a child’s life.”

Throughout the years, Stork’s commitment to creating a brighter day in the life of a sick child is not lost on her staff. “Jan is the foundation, especially in our community,” said Michelle Hoffman, the regional wish assistant for the Erie region. 

“I mean, everyone who knows Jan, all the wish families [who] know Jan, it’s a sense of home and a feeling of safety, so she holds everything together. And [with] what she does, she inspires everyone.”

Courtney Buckel, a student at Penn State University, who is currently completing her internship as a wish clerk, echoes Hoffman’s praises. “Working under Jan is one of the easiest and best things I’ve ever had to do because she guides, without hovering, which is one of my favorite things about her.”

Stork’s impact reaches far beyond the walls of her office, the city of Erie, and the surrounding areas. It also reaches the local universities in the region. Edinboro University of Pennsylvania, a leader in Make-A-Wish donations among NCAA Division II schools, recently hosted their fourth wish reveal this past February, during halftime of the women’s basketball game.

Bruce Baumgartner, director of athletics at Edinboro University, credits Stork’s genuine, positive, high-energy personality for making Edinboro’s student athletes “a little more aware and a little more appreciative and thoughtful in the whole process.”

Baumgartner also credits the work done with Stork and the Make-A-Wish organization for instilling a very important lesson in Edinboro’s students and student athletes. “It teaches our students at Edinboro, especially our student athletes, that it’s important to give back into society, and give back into the community, and I think they do a great job.”

No matter the illness, the child, or the wish, it is clear Stork’s passion for the job and love of the wish kids and their families rubs off on everyone she encounters. A passion that is evident in the glowing smile Stork consistently wears when talking about her 20 years on the job, recalling the power of wishes made and wishes granted.

Sarah Gillingham is a contributing writer for The Spectator and can be reached at 

Tags: make a wish

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