USA TODAY US Edition
From a little wish to a big hit
Non-profit run by college student brings smiles to sick kids
Liz Niemiec remembers seeing the little boy in the casket, his tiny hands clutching a picture of his beloved dog. That dog was the one thing that brought him happiness in the final weeks of his life.
“I lost my friend Max to cancer when he was 7 years old,” she says while cradling a cup of chai from a neighborhood coffee shop. “He was my fifth-grade teacher’s son, adopted from Russia, and he had a rare kidney cancer.”
Toward the end of Max’s battle, Niemiec said, his parents knew he really wanted a dog, so despite doctors’ concerns, they got him one. “I saw how happy it made him for the last couple of months of his life.”
Niemiec still gets teary-eyed talking about that day five years ago, but she shakes away the sadness to focus on the good that has happened since. Because it was on that day, leaving the funeral home, that she blurted out to her mom, “I want to help kids like Max; I think we should start a foundation or something.”
Niemiec, now 22 and a senior at Butler University, is studying non-profit management. She has devoted much of her spare time in the past five years to running Little Wish, a non-profit she set up to grant small wishes ($300 to $800) to kids with cancer.
Last week, she granted Wish No. 393, a gaming system delivered to 12-year-old Carson, who is being treated at Peyton Manning Children’s Hospital at St.Vincent Indianapolis Hospital.
Impressive for a college stu- dent who works part time, babysits, is active in the Delta Gamma sorority and is completing an internship this semester at Christel House International.
But these wishes, these kids, keep her going.
“It’s not like it’s a job or anything,” she said. “If you could go on a wish delivery, it’s awesome. It just makes your whole day, so I always try to squeeze them in.”
What started as a small fundraiser ($2 bracelets) in high school to finance her first wish has evolved into $250,000 in wishes granted to kids at Peyton Manning Hospital, Riley Hospital for Children at IU Health, Lutheran Children’s Hospital in Fort Wayne, Lurie Children’s Hospital in Chicago, Children’s Hospital Los Angeles and South Bend Children’s, where Max died.
Niemiec will be the first to tell you she’s had incredible support from friends and family back home in Michigan City and in Indianapolis, and she couldn’t have done it without her mom, who has been by her side from the beginning.
Therese Niemiec chairs Little Wish’s board of seven. The organization has no paid staff.
Last year, Niemiec approached Indianapolis-based Lids, the sports apparel retailer, about getting hats donated for kids with cancer.
Lids decided to do one better. The company’s foundation donated $10,000 to Little Wish and is now partnering with the organization to identify wish recipients on the West Coast. In fact, the company delivered 11 wishes to children in the Los Angeles area last week.
Other than the Lids sponsorship, Little Wish depends on private donations and fundraisers.
Niemiec intends to continue working as Little Wish’s executive director after graduation, and some day, she hopes to take the foundation international. But she’d also like to get more young people thinking about philanthropy, perhaps by developing a program for schools. “You can do little things every day for someone else. Think about how much better the world would be if we all thought about that.”
A little boy in California would agree. With help from Lids, Niemiec and her mom traveled to Los Angeles during the summer to deliver wishes, thanks to money raised in the company’s West Coast stores.
First on the list was a 7-yearold named Anthony. His wish? “A policeman dog.”
“This little boy wanted a dog, and that’s special because that’s how it all started. With Max,” Niemiec said.
“If you could go on a wish delivery, it’s awesome.”