All his life, Christopher James Greicius dreamed of becoming a police officer. Little did he know that his wish would be the inspiration for the creation of Make-A-Wish®, the largest wish-granting organization in the world.
In 1980, 7-year-old Chris Greicius was being treated for leukemia. Every day, he dreamed of becoming a police officer. U.S. Customs Officer Tommy Austin had befriended Chris and his mother, Linda Bergendahl-Pauling, and promised Chris a ride in a police helicopter. When Chris’ health worsened, Austin contacted Ron Cox, an Arizona Department of Public Safety DPS officer, and together, they planned a day that would lift Chris’ spirits.
On April 29, 1980, Austin and a caring group of DPS personnel started Chris’ day with a tour of the city in a department helicopter, which also flew him to headquarters. Three cruisers and a motorcycle officer greeted him before his meeting with the DPS command staff. There, Chris was sworn in as the first and only honorary DPS patrolman in Arizona state history.
His experience did not stop there. Cox contacted John’s Uniforms, which agreed to make a custom-tailored DPS uniform for Chris. The store owner and two seamstresses worked through the night to finish it. The officers presented the official uniform to Chris on May 1 and arranged a motorcycle proficiency test so he could earn wings to pin on his uniform. Needless to say, Chris passed the test with flying colors on his battery-operated motorcycle.
On May 2, Chris was back in the hospital. He asked to arrange the room so he could always see his uniform, his motorcycle helmet, and his “Smokey Bear”-style campaign hat. DPS motor officer Frank Shankwitz presented Chris with his very own motorcycle wings. He accepted them with a smile that lit up the entire room.
The following day, Chris passed away, but not before seeing his dream come true and experiencing the hope, strength and joy that came from receiving his wish.
Chris was to be buried in Kewanee, Ill. DPS spokesman Allan Schmidt promised that two Arizona officers would make the trip to Illinois to say goodbye to Chris. Scott Stahl, a DPS officer and Joliet, Ill. native, joined Frank Shankwitz on the poignant mission.
They had seen first hand how happy Chris was after his wish came true, and that the wish seemed to take some of Chris and Linda’s pain away – replacing the anguish with joy, laughter, and lifetime memories. They thought that if one boy’s wish could create such happiness, maybe they could do the same for other children. They presented the plan to the people who helped grant Chris’ wish. Linda and others endorsed the plan. Thus, the Chris Greicius Make-A-Wish® Memorial – which later became known as the Make-A-Wish Foundation® – was born.
The Foundation’s first donation was $15 from a grocery store manager. He pulled the money from his wallet after Shankwitz, who was working off-duty as an undercover security officer at the store, told him about the plan.
In November 1980, the Foundation received its tax-exempt status as a non-profit organization and began fundraising in earnest. Media reports inspired people throughout Arizona to generously donate to the Foundation to grant their first official wish. By March 1981, the Foundation had raised more than $2,000, enough to grant another child’s wish.
By 1982, the Make-A-Wish Foundation® had granted a total of eight wishes to children in the Phoenix area when it caught the attention of “NBC Magazine,” a national news program. The story began with the account of Chris’ wish and featured Linda Bergendahl-Pauling and Tommy Austin, who shared how Chris’ dream came true and the powerful impact of his wish. The reporter highlighted the beginnings of the Foundation and how a few children and their families were delighted by their wish experiences. Suddenly, millions of people around the country were inspired to share the power of a wish®.
On May 13, 1983, a year after NBC’s story, the Make-A-Wish Foundation® of America was officially incorporated, six official Make-A-Wish® chapters began operating around the country, and 22 more were established the following year. In 2000, 20 years after Chris donned his police uniform, the Make-A-Wish Foundation® granted its 80,000th wish.
To date, there are 62 Make-A-Wish Foundation® chapters in the United States and its territories, who together have granted wishes to children with life-threatening medical conditions. There are also 35 international affiliates spanning over five continents who grant the wishes of children around the world.
It is remarkable that Chris’ heartfelt wish over thirty years ago would be the start of the largest nonprofit wish-granting organization in the world. His legacy lives on today through the Make-A-Wish Foundation®.
Make-A-Wish Arizona is proud to partner with our local chapters of Chi Omega, a national sorority with three state university chapters that have been incredible fundraisers for our local Arizona children.