When Danielle Gletow adopted her daughter Mia, she began to learn about the American foster care system – and the challenges faced by more than 100,000 children and young adults who are part of it.
Determined to do something to help them, Ms. Gletow made it her mission not only to educate others about the challenges these children and teens face, but also to give people an easy way to lend a helping hand.
That's how One Simple Wish was born.
Founded in 2008 out of Gletow's home office, One Simple Wish is a nonprofit organization that connects foster children and vulnerable families with potential donors who grant their wishes online or at the organization's Ewing, N.J.-based "Wish Shop."
The wishes, which typically cost from $5 to $100 to grant, encompass everything from a desire for a musical instrument to a movie ticket, new clothes, or horseback riding lessons.
The goal, Gletow says, is to fulfill the dreams, big or small, of deserving children and families while bringing attention to the struggles they face.
To date, Gletow has seen more than 2,800 wishes granted by her organization. And while each is special, Gletow enjoys remembering some of the first wishes that she herself helped to grant.
For example, when a child in a low-income family wanted to take scuba-diving lessons with his older brother, she made calls to local schools until she found one willing to cover the cost of the class.
And when Sarah, a girl who had grown up in foster care, was graduating from basic training in the US Army, Gletow was able to help arrange for her caseworker to fly to South Carolina to share the proud moment that Sarah had worked so hard to reach.
Sarah was the only student who didn't have family coming to the graduation, Gletow says. "She had no way to pay for [her caseworker] to come."
Many of the requests aren't for physical items at all, she says, but rather the opportunity to have life experiences that many other children have – like music or gymnastics lessons.
"A lot of them do want these experiences that a lot of their friends are having," she says. "We are giving someone an opportunity that they may otherwise go through life not having."
Current wishes include mentoring for a 16-year-old foster child; an entertainment coupon book for a youth shelter in northern New Jersey, which will help organizers afford activities ($30); and photography supplies for a foster child who loves art ($45).
A foster child starting college is also wishing for a laptop computer ($325); another child needs gift cards toward clothing and food ($100); and another wish by a needy child is for a ticket to see "Annie" or a similar musical production ($55).
Fulfilling these wishes, says Martina Davidson, gives a needy child or teen something he or she might never otherwise have or experience.
Ms. Davidson is operations director for PEI Kids, a Lawrence, N.J.-based nonprofit group that provides prevention, education, and intervention programs for children, families, and caregivers related to personal safety, sexual abuse, and the overall well-being of children.
Gletow's work has touched the lives of some of the children at PEI Kids, and Davidson says the impact of such gifts can be tremendous.
One Simple Wish "will come in and provide that extra-special something for that child, whose needs and wants would not necessarily be met," she says. "They provide that extra-special wish for the child that does not always happen."
Life in the foster care system is full of ups and downs, Gletow says. Growing up in just one household throughout childhood is often only a dream. "There are children out there who don't have normal childhoods," she says. "Our child welfare system is broken, and it is leaving many children in devastating circumstances."
Those circumstances can be compounded when young adults "age out" of the system, she says. Many face unemployment and unsteady home environments and are left to take on the world all by themselves.
At first, Gletow was surprised by how little most people know about foster care.
"I realized how many other people out there would want to be involved if they knew, and they knew how," she says. The goal of her organization is not only to inform, but to help the would-be helpers take the next step.
"It is great to raise awareness, but it is better to raise awareness that sparks action," Gletow says.
For this mother of two, campaigning to brighten the lives of children and families in need quickly became a personal mission. When her new organization needed a financial investment, Gletow and her husband, Joe, pitched in with some of their own funds.
"It felt like the best money we ever spent," she says. "It makes so much sense to invest financially in something you are invested in emotionally. It felt like an investment in the kids."
Gletow also quit her high-paying marketing and advertising job to devote more time to the organization, as well as to her daughters, Mia and Lily, both 4.
Today, as founder and executive director of One Simple Wish, Gletow manages the daily aspects of the organization along with one employee, a handful of college interns, and scores of volunteers. The low overhead, she says, allows for most of the funds they raise to directly benefit clients.
Established in central New Jersey, One Simple Wish now has expanded its reach. In May, Gletow and a crew of volunteers hopped aboard an RV for a 30-day, 30-city trip across the country. At each stop along the way they granted wishes and held awareness events.
"It is so nice to know that people are embracing this way of giving, and that people are paying attention to this issue," she says. "It really does just make me proud."
Susan Dunning, executive director of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Mercer County Inc., in nearby Trenton, N.J., says Gletow's pride is well deserved. The mission of Ms. Dunning's organization has a great deal in common with One Simple Wish, she says, especially its goal of providing mentoring opportunities to children who need role models.
"We kind of work hand in hand," Dunning says. "We serve many of the same people in our community."
Dunning recalls how Gletow arranged for children in the Big Brother Big Sister summer program to take a field trip to Six Flags Great Adventure in Jackson, N.J. She also brought fun activities to the children for them to enjoy.
"She has done some really wonderful things," Dunning says. "She is constantly keeping us informed and extending opportunities."
By granting wishes, such as providing free prom dresses to less-fortunate high school girls, Gletow's work makes a true difference, Dunning says, while also helping more people learn that they can get involved.
"I think everybody has the ability to give back in some way," Dunning says. "[Gletow] creates that avenue for everybody to give something."
Each wish that is granted, she says, has an impact that far exceeds its cost.
"A $5 gift for some of these children can really go a long way," she says. "It lets them know that people care about them."
It is still hard to believe that a simple idea, sparked by Gletow's own experience with adoption, has turned into a growing nonprofit group that already has helped thousands, she says.
"We are making more people think about creative ways to support these kids," Gletow says. "People are being inspired to take this beyond what we expected."
•To learn more about One Simple Wish, or to grant the wishes of children and families in need, visit www.onesimplewish.org. If you are a current or former foster child, or know someone in need, contact Danielle Gletow at (609) 883-8484.
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