MAKING A DIFFERENCE
By Darlene Donloe
There is a quote that says, “In the end, all we have left are memories.”
The Dream Foundation, a nonprofit that serves terminally ill adults and their families is in the “memories” business.
The organization helps facilitate meaningful memories by providing end-of-life dreams that offer inspiration, comfort and closure.
The only national dream-granting organization for terminally-ill adults, Dream Foundation has granted 32,000 dreams over the past 25 years with the support of a nationwide network of volunteers, hospices, health care organizations and committed donors.
Kisa Heyer, CEO of the foundation, said the organization receives no state or federal funding, but rather relies solely on private donations.
“One hundred percent of the ‘dreams’ are made possible thanks to a generous community of individual sponsors and corporate partners,” said Heyer, who has been the organization’s CEO since 2016.
Heyer understands what families are going through during an incredibly stressful time.
“Many families have been impacted by a terminal illness,” Heyer said. “My family was. I started as a volunteer and had no idea the scope that Dream Foundation served nationwide. It’s about reaching people going through the worst time of their lives. Helping people with the most important request they ever made.”
Dream Foundation, which has an annual budget of $2.5 million, is a nationwide organization impacting countless family members, health care providers and volunteers.
Founded in 1994, the foundation, which receives no state or federal funding, but rather relies solely on private donations, boasts 80% of dream recipients reporting a greater sense of well being after a dream (in an independent study run in conjunction with the American Psychiatric Association).
Although the organization essentially deals with people coming to the end of their lives, Heyer considers her job rewarding.
“It’s the most fulfilling,” she said. “Some of the stories and situations our applicants are in are dire. But for me, what is fulfilling is to hear stories from surviving members about how the dream changed the family’s trajectory.”
In 2020, due to the pandemic, Dream Foundation saw a reduction in requests. Due to the pandemic, people couldn’t meet face-to-face. The pandemic forced Dream Foundation to react quickly.
“Half of our requests involve travel,” Heyer said. “Suddenly Disneyland is closed and it’s not safe to be on a plane. Some requests we redirected. Some requests changed to technology and some chose to wait to see what they could do. We just sent someone to Hawaii.”
Heyer said they try to grant as many “dreams” as possible.
Each year the organization receives 50-100 requests per month, with an average of 1,200 requests annually.
The most popular dream comes from applicants who have kids in the household under the age of 18. Heyer said that accounts for 30% of the popular dreams.
“The most common ‘dream’ is creating a memory for the child,” Heyer said. “Theme park requests, seeing the ocean for the first time, a party celebration and renewing of wedding vows are popular. There are also inspiration requests like an art exhibit of their life or publishing their memoirs. As they age, it’s about items like a comfortable bed, a lift chair or a wheelchair ramp.”
Heyer said one request came from a woman who was homebound for three years and wanted a ramp so she could go out of her house to visit her church, which was directly across the street.
Heyer said a man, who was living in an assisted living facility wanted Amazon gift cards to give to social workers to buy him socks and bread. He thought if he was given cash, the money would be stolen. Eventually, when someone found out about the man’s request, 1,200 pairs of happy socks were delivered to the facility.
One story is about a man who had mouth sores. His elderly wife would manually chip ice for him. It soon became too difficult for her. Dream Foundation provided a countertop ice chipper.
Heyer said Lakers legend Kobe Bryant granted a dream.
“At the end, they were both in tears,” she said.
There are some ‘dreams’ that the foundation can’t grant. For instance cruises, legal assistance, hunting, reimbursements, funeral arrangements or posthumous requests, automobiles, lifts, repairs, medical treatment, property and home improvements, and more, are never granted. There are a number of others.
Some celebrities only meet with kids and not adults. If that’s the case, Dream Foundation will ask for a second and third request.
To be considered for a “dream,” applicants must write the organization a note explaining their situation and their “dream.”
Applicants must be over 18 with a life expectancy of 12 months or less — verified by a physician. They also need to be lacking the resources to manifest their “dream” on their own. The lack of resources can either be financial or the lack of accessibility to a contact, for instance, a celebrity.
A number of conditions have to do with complex situations with family members who have not seen each other in a long time. Sometimes the Dream Foundation has to organize special transportation.
Heyer said the average cost of a “dream” is $2,300.
“We try to keep the cost as minimal as possible so we can serve more people,” Heyer said “We are totally reliant on private funding. We also rely on donations from in-kind partners.”
Occasionally, Dream Foundation is tasked with granting an emergency dream, which means the applicant has two months or less to live. About 15-20% of the foundation’s “dreams” are emergency in nature.
About 30% of the dream requests are from applicants under the age of 50, 10% are from applicants 18-33, 21% are between the age of 34-50, 37% are 51-65 and 32% are from applicants over the age of 65.
About 12% of the “dreams” are granted to veterans.
“They don’t have to be receiving benefits right now,” Heyer said. “They just have to be a veteran. We do require proof of service. They could have served at any time. It doesn’t have to be combat duty. They have to have an honorable discharge.”
In honor of veterans, at the end of May, Heyer said the Dream Foundation will kick off a big awareness, direct mail campaign for Memorial Day with plans to reach 25,000 military households. General and non-commissioned officers are expected to support the campaign, as will Kathy Ireland and Priscilla Presley, who have shown support in the past.
Heyer said veteran “dreams” include being able to see memorials that pay respect to veterans, visiting a monument at Pearl Harbor or having a uniform replaced so they can be buried in it.
The Dream Foundation also has a program called Flower Power. It’s a local program for California residents. Recipients of the flowers do not have to be terminally ill.
“It’s kind of a molding together of our growers who donate the excess and then we have volunteers who come every Saturday and put together beautiful bouquets of flowers that are delivered to elderly facilities and to individuals who need cheer for any reason,” Heyer said. Also included is a homemade card, chocolate and chocolate cookies.
There is also a Dream Toy Program.
“About 30% of our applicants have children in the household,” Heyer said. “We receive donations of toys and when we have an applicant come in, we get some toys for the kids. We have volunteers box them and wrap them and decorate them. These boxes arrive at the applicant so the terminally-ill people can give it to the children as a gift.”
The Dream Foundation produced “Language of Dreams,” a documentary that was included in the Santa Barbara International Film Festival.
“We were looking for an alternative fundraising event due to the pandemic,” Heyer said. “We had to reimagine what could be possible. We decided to make a documentary. We didn’t have a stand-alone piece. We wanted to capture the humanity of our work.”
Darlene Donloe is a freelance reporter for Wave Newspapers who covers South Los Angeles. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“Making a Difference” is a weekly feature profiling organizations that are serving their communities. To propose a “Making a Difference” profile, send an email to email@example.com.