If you could wish for anything in the world, what would it be? Danna Johnson has delighted dozens of seriously ill children over the past 18 years with that simple question. And the best part is that she’s been able to make those dreams come true.
Johnson, a Jonesboro, Ark.–based wish granter and fundraising volunteer with Make-A-Wish Mid-South, has granted eight wishes this year alone for children ranging from age 3 to 18.
“Anyone who has ever needed a reason to get out of bed every day should have an opportunity to meet a wish child,” says Johnson. “They will bless your life in ways you never dreamed possible.”
Children often wish for vacations, laptops, or shopping sprees. But they also can ask for experiences such as the chance to meet a celebrity or become someone else for a day—like a ballerina or a chef. It’s clear to staffers at the foundation that Johnson treats each wish as a magical moment and that each child fills a place in her heart. “We have seen lives change because of the hope and strength that Danna brings to these children and families,” says Liz Nelson, CEO and president of Make-A-Wish Mid-South.
One common misconception is that wishes are for children who are dying. Make-A-Wish serves children with life-threatening medical conditions, and the wishes are intended to give them a source of inspiration and something to look forward to. “A child doesn’t have to be terminally ill to get a wish,” says Johnson. “It’s not a last wish; it’s a lasting wish.”
Wishes Come True
Zoe Kerley, 13, of Maynard, Ark., is battling idiopathic pulmonary arterial hypertension, a condition that causes increased blood pressure in the pulmonary arteries and can lead to heart failure.
Zoe’s wish was to have her hangout room redone with a Duck Dynasty theme. So Johnson recruited community vendors and volunteers to make it happen. The team spent two days decorating for Zoe, adding a camouflage couch, a game storage coffee table, and a new television. Johnson obtained items autographed by Duck Dynasty cast members and a video from one of them telling Zoe her wish was granted. It’s these kind of finishing touches that help make the experience special, according to Zoe’s family.
Though typically leery of opening up to new people, Zoe instantly fell in love with Johnson. “That was an overwhelming feeling for me and my family,” says Zoe’s mother, Star Kerley. “You can hear words a million times and when Danna says them, you hear them a different way—hope and strength.”
While the remodeling work was going on, the Kerley family of 13 had fun in the kitchen, ensuring volunteers were fed. “It was a great escape for my family to get away from the medical tests for one day and be together as one big family,” says Kerley.
And that family feeling doesn’t stop at blood relations. “The wish experience is so powerful that these kids and their families become an extension of my family,” says Johnson. “We have a saying in northeast Arkansas: ’Once a wish kid, always a wish kid.’ My kids know that no matter how old they get, they will forever be my kid and I love them.”
Kendra Street of Marmaduke, Ark., became one of those kids when she had to fight stage 3 Hodgkin lymphoma as a teenager. Street, a lifelong major league baseball fan, remembers Johnson granting her wish on senior night at Marmaduke High School. During a slide show celebrating her and her classmates, an extra slide was inserted that said, “Pack your bags, Kendra... Make-A-Wish is sending you to meet the Atlanta Braves!”
“Danna is one of the reasons that I’m here today to give back wishes,” says Street, now 32, who’s been a volunteer for 11 years. “We just bonded. She is just that person who is a friend. You know if you have a need, she will help you.”
Johnson has also inspired local students to share the power of a wish. Brookland Elementary School held a change drive that raised $13,000 in one week and funded two wishes. “It’s the students who learn how to raise and count money,” says Johnson. “We are teaching them the importance of giving back and touching the lives of other children.”
In addition to granting wishes, Johnson coordinates Jonesboro’s biggest Make-a-Wish event as co-chair of the Have-A-Heart Wish-A-Thon. Since 1999, Johnson has helped raise more than $3 million, which has funded wishes for 620 children. Every Valentine’s Day, the organization works with local radio station KAIT to allow wish children and their families to share their stories on the air. The event raised $400,000 this year for her target area of northeast Arkansas, beating all other groups in per capita fundraising in her Mid-South chapter, which covers parts of Arkansas, Tennessee, and Mississippi.
Johnson coordinates the largest component of this annual Wish-A-Thon: the community roadblocks. Volunteers, including wish children and their families, stand at intersections for twelve hours collecting donations at 14 roadblocks around Jonesboro. Throughout the day, volunteers call in to the radio show to report dollar totals. Rain or shine, Johnson makes trips with an armed police officer to take the checks, coins, and dollars to the bank. This year alone, the roadblock volunteers raised $185,750.
Even as she winds up her second decade of service to the organization through which she’s granted more than 50 wishes, Johnson’s not slowing down. She’s currently working on surprising a teenage boy who’s undergoing cancer treatment with a $28,000 boat. “It’s very difficult to surprise an 18-year-old boy, especially with something as large as a boat, but we have a magical reveal planned for him,” says Johnson. “The look on his face will be priceless and the memories made will last a lifetime.”
At the same time she orchestrates these life-changing wishes, Johnson is a top salesperson at Crye-Leike, REALTORS®. People often ask her how she continues to balance her life as a real estate professional, mom, wife, and volunteer. Her answer: “I just do it with a to-do list each day, even if it means getting up early or staying up late.”
For Johnson, the stakes are too high not to give up at least some of virtually each of her busy days to her wish kids: “I have a goal to see that every eligible child has his or her wish granted, giving them back the hope, strength, and joy that their illness has taken away.”