Stelle, the Santa Barbara nonprofit organization’s office manager and its first entry point to making dreams a reality, also gathers an assortment of cups, badges and baseball caps and folds T-shirts for delivery to dream recipients and family members. She periodically stops to answer phone calls received on the main line.
Her voice is calm and noninvasive as she patiently screens calls that range from general inquiries to anxious clients seeking a status on their application.
“A lot of times people are very uncomfortable with just hearing about the 12 months or less life-expectancy requirement so I try to focus in the now,” Stelle explained to Noozhawk. “We don’t have time to waste so let’s make every moment count.”
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Some callers want their dreams to be granted immediately but Dream Foundation staff lack the required resources to turn around dream requests in a short period of time. It usually takes two to three weeks for dream coordinators to process an application and verify the applicant’s medical information.
“On average, 85 to 90 percent of dream requests are fulfilled, which is amazing for a small organization with only 20 employees,” said Stelle. “We fulfilled over 2,000 dreams last year. It’s so exciting when I get to tell an applicant that their dream has been approved.”
Fulfilling the dreams requires a delicate balance between efficiency and personal involvement for Dream Foundation staff and volunteers since every recipient is unique and each experience is filled with emotion.
Barbara Schoch, who started volunteering for the foundation in the fall of 2006, was hired four years ago as the dream program manager overseeing requests. She works with dream coordinators to fulfill the applications.
“As a volunteer I got to archive the dreams, which meant I got to look through all the files and see what the Dream Foundation actually did for them,” said Schoch. “And reading those letters, I just cried so much. So I knew that every time I came here I would make a difference somehow.”
At any give time, there are approximately 150 dreams in progress — with about half of them on Schoch’s desk and the rest with dream coordinators going through a careful verification process before planning and completion.
Schoch also handles all of the celebrity dreams, including a recent one in which a 23-year old man diagnosed with Huntington’s disease, a degenerative nervous system disorder, traveled from Idaho to meet Kobe Bryant after a Los Angeles Lakers game.
“His mom and his brother took him to see the Lakers a few years ago, and just seeing them play and seeing Kobe in action really inspired him,” Schoch said. “His mother felt that it gave him a glow for months afterward to keep going and keep fighting. And now actually getting to meet Kobe will be fabulous for him.”
Other celebrities who are gracious with their time include Jeff Bridges, Celine Dion, Rick Springfield and Morgan Freeman, who invited a dream recipient to dinner at a house in Malibu where Freeman danced, sang and shared stories from a book the dream recipient had written about her experiences with breast cancer.
Not everyone is able to assist the Dream Foundation, however, and one area of celebrity involvement that remains an issue is assistance from professional golfers.
“We have huge trouble getting to golfers,” Schoch said. “We have maybe two or three dreams a year where somebody would love to either play a few holes or get in contact with one of the top golfers, and none of them so far has been ready to even do a phone call.
“So that’s disappointing,” she added.
And the process of completing the dream request holds a great deal of importance with challenging timelines.
“Having someone wait five months to confirm a dream will rob them of the chance to do another dream when they often only have six months to live,” said Schoch.
Steve Charles, a volunteer sports dream captain, started three years ago doing a range of dream coordination. Although many of the sports dreams are for NASCAR events, there are three in progress for baseball.
And when a dream recipient becomes too ill to travel, arrangements are made to provide signed memorabilia like a picture or a baseball cap. One NASCAR driver even sent a full fire suit.
“They are all really unique stories and nice people, and they just want to have one special time with family or kids to remember dad, mom or grandpa or grandma in a happier time,” said Charles.
Generosity and resources from corporate partners and a nationwide network provide the small Santa Barbara office with the ability to touch small towns and big cities across the country. These important corporate partners include Barrister Executive Suites, Evercare, Genentech, Gentiva, Hasbro, Kozy Shack, TelePacific and Wells Fargo, which provide various services, local resources, employee volunteers and community support.
The dream application process itself begins when the condition has become terminal and medicine is no longer an answer. The first step is to identify the final dream and fill out an application addressed from the heart.
Once medical verification is confirmed, a dreamer is assigned to a dream coordinator who utilizes a plethora of in-kind resources, such as hotel vouchers, donated airline miles and food certificates, to make the dream a reality.
“A lot of these people don’t have much money and could never do these sort of things, and they are just kind of blown away,” said Charles. “You mean you’re going to get us a hotel, you’re going to fly us there, you got us tickets and I might get to meet so and so or this or that?”
And, if there are children at the home, special packages with age-appropriate toys — donated by Hasbro for the Toy Program — are delivered for the dream recipient to share with his or her children.
“We sent out over 2,000 donated toys last year because we know a lot of the time that children don’t get anything during the time that the parent struggles with an illness,” said Schoch. “So to have something special for them and it coming from the parent is really appreciated because it’s not only the dreamer that suffers but children and the family, too.”
Upon completion of all the final arrangements, a dream box is personally delivered by a local dream host with all the necessary items and special mementos, including itineraries, tickets, passes, dream T-shirts, hats and a disposable camera to capture the lasting memories. More than 60 percent of dreams are delivered by volunteer coordinators from corporations or people who just want to be involved.
The hard work and the special touches that the Dream Foundation provides to those most in need include the smallest of things that often result in the biggest impact.
“When a dreamer calls after the dream and you hear them cry on the phone, and all maybe we gave them was just a nice meal at the restaurant with their whole family, and they come back and rave that we thought about putting flowers on their table,” said Schoch. “Something like that really touches me all the time.”
Community involvement and support for dreamers can also occur in the most unique and timeliest of circumstances.
“There’s a dream that we’re still working on for a woman in Arizona who has no money to get a new transmission for her car,” said Schoch. “So I put out my feelers in all different directions and I get a call from a high school teacher who teaches an auto shop class who said they’d do it. That’s something when people in the community where the dreamer lives step up and say we can help.”
The motivation to face emotional circumstances on a daily basis is made easier thanks to the dedication of the Dream Foundation staff.
“It’s giving to someone who’s in a tough spot and isn’t as fortunate in some ways that I am,” said Charles. “And, the people who work down here are so nice to be around and that keeps me going as well.”
“It’s really about making those last memories happy ones because a lot of times the children don’t remember when their parents weren’t sick,” said Viola. “They just want to have some fun, even if it’s only for a few days.”
Viola coordinates transportation, accommodations, theme park tickets and other special requests with a budget of $1,000 for families. She relies heavily on in-kind donations and donated airline miles to make these dream vacations possible.
There are currently 33 theme park dream applicants who are processed by priority of an individual’s life expectancy that sometimes can be as short as two months.
“There are a lot of bedside reunions when it’s an emergency dream request,” said Viola. “They just want to say goodbye to family members and see them one last time.”
Viola works closely with many dream recipients and said it’s impossible not to form personal attachments.
Adjacent to her desk is a framed thank-you letter and photo of her sitting with a dream recipient, Jack, 54, who’s holding a dream gift package that she personally created and delivered as a surprise to him in Arroyo Grande, her hometown.
“He has pancreatic cancer and dreamed of visiting Yosemite National Park and Bass Lake to fish for a few days with his wife, Charlotte, because he’s always had a fascination with Ansel Adams photographs and the beautiful natural wonders there,” said Viola.
“I was able to deliver Jack’s dream package to him at his home, where he and his wife welcomed me and I felt like I had known them for years.”
Lori Thiel now thrives as a dream coordinator after leaving her previous job of 10 years at America Online to care for her ailing grandmother.
“We receive new dreams each week and the majority of my dreams are for the quality of life applicants” said Thiel. “I provide travel scooters and lift chairs to our dreamers. Right now I have 20 dreamers awaiting mobile products.”
The mobile devices, furnished by U.S. Medical Supplies, are vital for dreamers who are immobile or bedridden and want to live more comfortably with a degree of independence.
“We just had this great delivery where a Purple Heart veteran didn’t want his wife to have to push him in the wheelchair anymore,” said Thiel.
A few days after the scooter was delivered, Thiel received a thank-you letter and a picture of the dreamer proudly sitting atop his new wheels of freedom.
“It brought tears to my eyes when I saw the smile on his face and to hear the positive feedback from his wife telling me that she had no idea how much the scooter would raise his spirits and give him so much joy,” said Thiel.
Dream coordinator Shersy Benson specializes in Hawaii dreams and complex travel dreams. She works diligently to assemble one-of-a-kind experiences, from establishing corporate discounts, hotel accommodations, passes to luaus, deep-sea fishing, sunset cruises and swimming with dolphins.
Benson proudly noted that she has fulfilled more than 100 dreams in the past year and that her goal each day is to create the best vacation possible for her dreamers. She also accepts the responsibility to educate dreamers on what it’s like to travel with an illness, as well as preparing them for the obstacles that they’ll need to overcome.
“This isn’t just a job for us, and it’s more than just being a travel agent or social worker,” she said. “We put our heart and soul into what we do to and it takes a certain type of person to be involved in this.
“I think one of the most difficult aspects of our job is becoming deeply connected to everyone we work with, and it’s hard because they become a part of your life. You talk to them sometimes for several months, you can meet them, you can hug them, you keep in correspondence, and then they are just gone one day.
“It’s a tough, tough process,” she continued, “but you just have to focus on what you were able to accomplish for them while they were here. It’s just a beautiful thing.”
The Dream Foundation programs detailed here only touch the surface of the organization’s commitment to those in need. Future stories in this new series will highlight a specific program, share the impact of a fundraising event, share inspiring stories from dream recipients, and more.
» Click here for more information on the Dream Foundation, or call 805.564.2131.
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