Deborah Bender & Marilyn Sanson

25 Years of Wishes

By Lorna Oppedisano | Photography by Alexis Emm

Make-A-Wish of Central New York has granted more than 1,500 wishes since its inception in 1985. It’s also nurtured a long-lasting friendship between longtime Make-A-Wish wishgranting volunteers, Marilyn Sanson and Deborah “Debbie” Bender.

Marilyn and Debbie’s sons started kindergarten together in 1974, and continued school together into their first two years at Le Moyne College. It was then they decided to go on a cross-country bicycle trip after finishing undergrad. Debbie’s son completed his studies at SUNY Oswego, while Marilyn’s stayed at Le Moyne. Then, they packed up their bikes, and used their graduation gifts — two one-way tickets to Seattle — to begin their adventure on the west coast. They wanted to report back to a radio station in the Syracuse area to share their travels.

“Well, what’s your cause?” they were asked.

When Debbie’s son was at Oswego, he’d met a child who’d been granted a wish through Make-A-Wish. So, they picked that organization. Debbie and Marilyn started a letter-writing campaign back home, and by the time their sons returned, they had raised approximately $3,400 — just about the cost of a wish at the time.

“Could we do a wish?” they asked.

“And we did not know that 25 years later, we’d still be doing those wishes,” Marilyn said with a laugh.

In the quarter-century since, Marilyn and Debbie have granted more than 75 wishes together in Make-A-Wish’s 15-county territory.

When they began, Make-A-Wish was a much smaller organization, and their wish granting was very hands-on, from planning the wish to orchestrating the travel itinerary.

“Now it’s more that we try to enhance the wish — to make it exciting, to make it personal,” Debbie said.

For example, if it’s a travel wish, rather than planning the plane ride, they might bring the child a calendar to count down the days until the trip, or a backpack for their adventure.

It’s also important to Marilyn and Debbie that they make the child’s whole family part of the wish. Sometimes, it can be as simple as stopping by to make cookies with the siblings left at home while the child’s wish is granted.

Over the years, Make-A-Wish has given the duo many unique opportunities — from building furniture to learning about the local Amish culture to dressing up in dinosaur costumes — and one thing that’s stood out above all else is the strength of the children, they said.

“The children — their maturity is above and beyond, because of what they’ve gone through,” Debbie said.

You might think wish granting could get to be emotionally difficult at times, but Marilyn and Debbie agreed that’s never been the case. In the eyes of the children, they’re “the good people,” Marilyn explained.

“We’re the fairy godmothers. So, they don’t see us with a needle. They don’t see us with medicine. They don’t see us bring any harm,” Debbie added. “And all of the sudden, they realize that we’re bringing happiness. We’re bringing something different to their lives.”

With 25 years of wish-granting experience behind them, the MakeA-Wish fairy godmothers aren’t ready to stop yet.

“You finish a wish, and see the excitement of the child and the family involved,” Debbie said. “You just want to go on to another wish.” SWM

For more information about Make-A-Wish Central New York, visit

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