Making their wishes come true

by Jun Hongo

Staff Writer

If you were granted one wish this Christmas, what would you wish for?

For 17-year-old Mostafa Horie, the choice was simple: to see a Ferrari race car in action. And not just any old Ferrari, but the Ferrari F138 that was driven this year by two-time Formula One champion Fernando Alonso.

“It’s just different,” Horie says. “It has history. The Ferrari race cars shine much brighter than the others.”

What’s more, he adds, the deafening roar of the F138′s engine is simply mind-blowing.

Horie has loved Ferrari race cars since he was 6 years old. He was diagnosed with congenital biliary atresia, a rare disease in young children that leads to early-onset cirrhosis of the liver, when he was 9 while living with his family in Egypt. And as if that wasn’t difficult enough to deal with, he also had to fight pancreatic cancer in the following years.

Fortunately for Horie, the Make-A-Wish of Japan Foundation was able to grant his wish. The organization helped the young Ferrari fan attend the Japanese Grand Prix that was held at the Suzuka racing circuit, Mie Prefecture, in October.

“We’ve experienced some difficult situations and suffered a lot of hardship” in recent years, says Horie’s mother, Reiko.

But Horie’s overall outlook has been different ever since his visit to Suzuka, she says, noting that he has been much more relaxed and at ease with himself.

“It was a great experience (for Mostafa),” she says. “It’s been a great year.”

MAWJ, a nonprofit organization that grants the wishes of children, aged between 3 and 17, who are fighting life-threatening diseases, has been operating in Japan for 21 years. The NPO is trying to grant 200 wishes in 2013, which is likely to keep them working well into the holiday season.

“We’re not sure we can reach 200 wishes, but it has been a record-breaking year for us,” says Tomoko Suzuki, a staffer from the organization.

MAWJ has eight branches across the country that are run by 15 full-time employees. Donations comprise approximately 80 percent of the organization’s annual budget, with sales and fundraising events making up the remainder. Thousands of registered volunteers are mobilized whenever necessary to help grant a child’s wish.

The organization has needed to set quite strict criteria to define whether a sick child is eligible to receive a wish.

“For example, we can’t accept children in a coma or those with diseases that are not life-threatening,” MAWJ General Manager Hisako Ohno says. A wish that may put a child’s health at risk — such as a trip overseas — is also tricky.

It seems appropriate at this juncture to ask what wishes are popular with kids in need of a bit of extra TLC? It’s perhaps not surprising to learn that a trip to Disneyland is the most popular request, making up 40 percent of the wishes that MAWJ has granted over the years.

“A trip to Disneyland doesn’t sound too difficult,” Suzuki says, “but that’s not the case for these kids. They require all sorts of help in terms of preparation, getting there and also once they’re inside the park.”

Suzuki says she is often surprised at how selfless many of the children are when choosing what they want.

“There was a girl whose single wish was to hold a wedding ceremony for her parents. Another child wanted to plan a surprise birthday party for her father,” Suzuki says. “Another child asked for a special DVD box set by The Beatles. It turned out to be something she wanted to give to her father as a present.”

It’s not unusual to cancel a proposed wish-granting event at the last minute, as many of the children become too ill to take part. MAWJ does not keep in touch with the children after their wish is granted, but it believes around 60 percent of them pass away shortly thereafter.

Horie’s visit to Suzuka almost didn’t happen as well; he was suffering from diarrhea and came down with a high fever the day before the race.

Since returning to Japan from Egypt in December 2007, Horie has undergone multiple surgeries. Doctors removed three-quarters of his pancreas and he was given multiple rounds of chemotherapy, but the cancer returned in March 2010. The prognosis wasn’t looking very bright and doctors have resorted to treating his illness with more unconventional alternatives.

Assisted by volunteers and MAWJ employees, his family took a bullet train from Gunma, where they live, to Tokyo and then headed west from there. “We were in agreement that if his fever got any higher, we would go home,” his mother recalls. Maybe it was the sight of Formula One world champion Sebastien Vettel surrounded by reporters, or his brief chat with Japanese racing star Kamui Kobayashi in the Ferrari pit, but Horie’s condition improved markedly as soon as they arrived at Suzuka, Suzuki says.

“Once the engines started, Horie stood speechless for more than 15 minutes and couldn’t hold back his tears,” she says.

Horie himself remembers the Italian technicians with the Ferrari team who allowed him to watch everything in the pit. “It was like a gift, really. A special present just for me,” he says.

The original Make-A-Wish foundation was founded in Arizona in 1980, after local police staged a special event for a boy with leukemia whose wish was to become a police officer for a day.

Last month, a 5-year-old American boy made headlines when his wish to become a superhero was granted in San Francisco. With the support of Make-A-Wish, Miles Scott played the role of Batkid and hunted down evil robbers in the city. The entire city, as well as 7,000 extras, helped the boy’s dream come true.

Ohno explains that while those big-scale dreams are inspiring, there are differences between Japan and some Western countries on how people perceive the act of social contribution. In the United States, for example, charity and volunteering appear to come more naturally for many. Celebrities are often open to meeting an ill young fan if that would grant a child’s wish.

“Unfortunately in Japan, such acts are sometimes seen as self-advertisement, or an attempt to raise one’s social profile,” Suzuki says.

There are a few celebrities that are willing to meet sick children, including the late rock star Hide, actor Takeshi Tsuruno (who appeared in the popular Ultraman series) and basketball player Yuta Tabuse, but they are sadly in the minority. Many celebrities claim that it would be unfair to grant one fan’s request to meet them while not doing the same for others.

“We understand where they are coming from and can’t blame them,” Ohno says.

Ohno, who has worked for the foundation for nearly 20 years, says her encounter with Mio Shimizu nearly a decade ago still holds a special place in her heart.

Mio, diagnosed with terminal cancer at just 12 years old, approached MAWJ with a dream to publish her own picture book. Her story, titled “Ichiban Taisetsu na Mono” (“The Most Important Thing”), followed a group of animals traveling together through the woods in search of a hidden treasure box. The animals struggle to work together at first, but eventually overcome their differences and begin to search together. Once they locate the box, however, they find it to be empty.

“It’s a story about understanding the most important thing in life,” Ohno says.

“Mio worked in her bed while fighting her disease,” she recalls, and was able to finish her book despite severe symptoms that included nausea, diarrhea and partial paralysis. “Ichiban Taisetsu na Mono” was published on June 2, 2002, but Mio passed away a day before the book came out.

“Her work has gone on to sell more than 20,000 copies,” Ohno says. “It continues to touch the hearts of the readers.”

Horie has been doing fairly well since his visit to Suzuka in October. He’s been attending classes regularly, with the exception of physical education workouts. He finished his yearend exams (which he says he did OK in, except for math) and is now eager to enjoy the holidays or, in his case, play countless hours of Grand Theft Auto 5. There are no plans for a date on Christmas Eve since all the girls in his class treat him like a little brother, Horie’s mother says.

“Things should change once I go to university though,” Horie replies confidently.

What comes after university is still unclear, but one option is to work in the automobile industry, preferably for Ferrari, he says. But there is also a plan B.

“I’ve come to understand that I depend on so many people in my life,” Horie says. “So I thought, maybe, I want to work and help those in need when I grow up — just like the people who helped me out with my wish.”


I wish that I could…

A selection of some of the wishes that have been granted by the Make-a-Wish of Japan Foundation in 2013:

Find my room full of Rilakkuma goods — 7-year-old girl, Kagawa Prefecture, wish granted Feb. 8

Play with dolphins — 13-year-old girl, Tokyo, wish granted Feb. 16-18

Visit Anpanman Museum in Kobe — 3-year-old girl, Hyogo Prefecture, wish granted March 3-5

Visit a hot spring with my family — 11-year-old girl, Saitama Prefecture, wish granted March 4-6

Dress as Snow White and visit Tokyo Disneyland — 7-year-old girl, Shizuoka Prefecture, wish granted March 28-30

Wear a cute wig — 10-year-old girl, Kyoto Prefecture, wish granted March 31

Meet Ultraman Zero and hunt down evil guys — 7-year-old boy, Tokyo, wish granted April 9

Stay at a hotel in which I can hear trains running — 3-year-old boy, Aichi Prefecture, wish granted May 12-13

Attend a “Zyuden Sentai Kyoryuger” (power ranger) show — 12-year-old boy, Kumamoto Prefecture, wish granted June 8 -9

Meet Buz Lightyear — 5-year-old boy, Fukuoka Prefecture, wish granted June 12-14

Go on a drive with my father and visit Tokyo Skytree — 11-year-old boy, Hyogo Prefecture, wish granted July 15

Learn how to cook from a chef and make dinner for my family — 10-year-old girl, Aichi Prefecture, wish granted Aug. 19

Attend a Kara concert — 11-year-old girl, Nara Prefecture, wish granted Oct. 23-24

Work as an aquarium caretaker for penguins — 6-year-old boy, Tokyo, wish granted Nov. 6-7

  • Kasandra

    This is very touching. How different these kids’ wishes are, compared to our everyday worries. xo