Emily Jones was a fighter. Faced with an aggressive form of cancer, the 11-year-old from Newburgh, Ind., clung to her passions: her love of animals, food (crab legs were her favorite), family, fun, and all things bling.
Someone else who never gave up was Kristina Rhodes — an indefatigable volunteer for Make-A-Wish who went above and beyond to make Emily’s dream come true, something the girl’s family will never forget.
Make-A-Wish is an international organization that grants wishes to children with life-threatening medical conditions. Emily, a fifth-grader who was diagnosed on Sept. 24, 2012, with acute lymphoblastic leukemia, wished to take a Caribbean cruise with her parents and older brother Isaak. That fall and winter, she and her doctors battled the disease until it was nearly in remission. But the cancer was unrelenting and came back in the spring. Emily’s doctors decided to pursue a bone marrow transplant and even found a donor. But Emily’s white blood cell count never reached the levels required for the transplant. She also never regained the strength necessary to travel for her cruise.
So what did Rhodes do? She brought the cruise to Emily. On her own, Rhodes arranged a pontoon ride on the Ohio River for Emily and a few close friends. Sending her off was a crowd of 50 loved ones, including some of her teachers, classmates, and family members, dressed in tropical outfits. Each person placed a lei around Emily’s neck before she boarded the boat. Soon Emily was festooned in tropical adornments.
“When you have a situation like Emily’s and you’re able to spend time with the family and get to know them, it really teaches you something,” Rhodes said. “Emily taught me about what’s really important in life and helped me keep things in perspective.”
Emily’s mom, Tracy Jones, remains in awe of Rhodes. “Kristina is a fantastic volunteer; as soon as she walked into the room, I knew I was going to like her. She’s so personable and so sweet,” she says.
Rhodes, who was adopted as a baby, was inspired to get involved with Make-A-Wish by her birth mother, who volunteered in Fort Wayne, Ind. When Rhodes found out that Make-A-Wish only had one other volunteer in southern Indiana in 2001, she decided to jump in and expand the organization’s local presence. But she did much more than raise awareness; Rhodes grew her southern Indiana Make-A-Wish outpost from two volunteers to more than 300 supporters today. Rhodes has even assembled a regional council—the first such fundraising group of its kind, which has become a model for other Make-A-Wish chapters. Rhodes has helped raise nearly half a million dollars and has helped make more than 80 young dreams come true.
Rhodes helps make even the grandest dreams a reality, including those of a 5-year-old boy who wanted to meet President Obama and another boy who wanted to meet the pope. A boy named Sam, with a rare skin disease, got to play baseball with his favorite Yankee players, while his sister Sophie, who suffers from the same ailment, went on an American Girl doll shopping spree on Rodeo Drive.
Because young Emily Jones couldn’t take her cruise, Rhodes wanted to do something more than the pontoon-boat ride. So she worked through Make-A-Wish to grant Emily another wish—her own dog, a small Pomeranian mix that Emily chose from a local shelter. When Emily went home from the hospital on Aug. 8, Rhodes sprang into action, picking up the dog—which Emily named Sally Cookie—and had it waiting for her when she arrived home.
Having the dog by her side helped Emily relax and take her mind off her illness—which is what Make-A-Wish is all about. “That was the happiest she had been in a long time,” says her mom.
“Make-A-Wish is about joy,” explains Rhodes. “When a child gets a wish, it’s something to look forward to, and it’s a distraction from all that day-to-day stuff they have to tolerate. They see there is something good in their future.”
Rhodes works hard to combat a common misconception about Make-A-Wish: that it serves only children who are terminally ill. The fact is that the majority of sick children involved in the program do recover. Sadly, Emily did not. She passed away on Aug. 17, less than a year after her cancer diagnosis. “This must have been Sally’s calling because she and Emily bonded so well,” says Tracy Jones. “She’d go lay with Emily, and all she wanted to do was cuddle with her, and that’s what they did.”