Behind The Wish - Ben Duce

Meet Ben Duce, a 24-year-old from the Sydney North Branch.

Aussie Rules umpire Ben has bounced into his Fundraising Coordinator role since joining Make-A-Wish in 2022.

Behind The Wish is our series of inspirational reads diving into the everyday superheroes involved in creating life-changing wishes.


Ben's pushing the boundaries in AFL

I was born in Sydney and raised there but lived in Melbourne for a year and a half and I think that’s when I found my love for AFL.

I have always been interested in sport. Straight out of school I wanted to get into some sort of sports career. I went into strength and conditioning, after doing an exercise and sports science degree, and that allowed me to work with a few sporting teams.

I then wanted to try something different, so I transitioned into corporate health and well-being and that’s where I currently am.

When I was going through school, I was playing footy for my local club. Then some of my mates were doing umpiring and I thought I’d give it a go.

I had done a fair bit of running at school and I guess playing footy - they go together and for the last eight years I have been umpiring at a state level, currently the Victorian Football League. I’m a boundary umpire.

I also do the AFL Women’s competition. That’s really enjoyable, it has a really good culture.

The goal is to be an AFL umpire, that’s the goal I have been working towards. It’s a small group in Sydney, only four boundary umpires, so I have to crack into that top four.


Taking on a new challenge

About two years ago my professional career was going through some changes and I was looking for something additional, something that challenged me.

I have always enjoyed some sort of challenge: whether it’s physical, social, or professional.

Make-A-Wish is a well-known organisation so I reached out to the Sydney North Branch and said I would love to be involved.

And fortunately, I was able to join in the role of Fundraising Coordinator which is the role I am still doing today.

My father had cancer for a few years. As a child going through school you have got that constant fear and thought of ‘oh my dad is going in for surgery today and I’m not sure how that is going to go’.

For a child, it’s a really challenging time of your life already but when you couple that with illness – and for wish kids missing out on time in school – it has a significant impact.

If there is any way you can help people and provide hope through those times, then I think that’s something that’s really rewarding.

I guess that’s part of the motivation for joining Make-A-Wish.

When I am meeting with these 8 or 10-year-olds and I look back to when I was their age, all I worried about was getting home and playing footy or cricket in the backyard. When you consider it like that, it makes you feel grateful how your life has gone to date.

My dad is OK now. It was actually quite miraculous how well he has recovered.

It was about eight years ago now. I am super grateful for how it ended. But there’s also the genetic element, there might be a day when I’m at risk.

My childhood was really fortunate, I was healthy. When I was going through school, our cricket coach’s son passed away from cancer at about 18 months old.

At the time it was so upsetting. It was such a challenging time for our coach and when you’re 16 or 17, you don’t grasp the enormity of it but you do know it’s sad and tragic and you want to support them any way you can.


Have a ball raising funds

Last weekend we had our Sydney North Gala Ball. It was really enjoyable.

That’s something that other people in the Branch take a lot of ownership of. So Rosa Chirillo, Marion Chaffe and Laraine Finlay are their names and they do a fantastic job. Rosa is usually the face of the event and she has so many contacts she calls on for the event. The amount of hours the team put into the event was amazing.

I had to help with getting prizes for a silent auction. So, reaching out to people and having discussions. It can be uncomfortable for some people to ask others to donate, but most of the time the people you approach are super supportive.

Last year for the 2023 Ball, I reached out to the AFL for four tickets to the Medallion Club at Marvel Stadium.

There’s a place in the Blue Mountains I have stayed at, so I reached out to them this year and said "We have this event, would you like to donate a couple of nights’ accommodation?" and they were like "Absolutely we would!"

On the day of the gala ball, many of us got there early and helped set up: putting brochures on tables, getting prizes set up on the tables, and that sort of stuff.

Once you see the Wish Journey for yourself, you realise how important fundraising is in making wishes happen. Fundraising gives branches the capacity to help with wishes. So, we talk about how you can contribute towards making a wish come true.

When you realise how much power there is in granting a child’s wish, it’s fantastic. Without people donating, the reality is wishes wouldn’t happen.


Noah's Lions wish comes true

One of my favourite wishes was in 2023. We had a young boy called Noah and his wish was to watch the Brisbane Lions in the AFL Grand Final.

We weren’t sure if it was going to happen. The timeline was very short. But all of a sudden, I got an email from Make-A-Wish head office saying "Fantastic news! Noah is off to the Grand Final!" There was a greater power and the stars aligned.

The bit that’s so rewarding with these wishes is when you’re communicating with the child and family, and the parents are so grateful. They just want the best for their child, which I guess is why they have reached out to Make-A-Wish.

Noah’s family actually live towards the Sunshine Coast region, so it was all virtual. My passion for footy and connection to footy made me a good candidate for this wish.

During the initial stage, the Wish Capture, Noah said "I want to see the Lions in the Grand Final" and we had to say "Well, the Lions aren’t necessarily going to make the Grand Final."

From memory, one of his favourite players was Daniel Rich and he had been given Daniel’s boots. So, he knew very much what he wanted. I don’t think there was any ambiguity about what his wish was going to be.

And when the Lions made the Grand Final, it was one of those ‘pinch me’ moments.

I was in Melbourne on the Grand Final weekend. There were emails coming through and the feedback was that he absolutely loved it, as did the whole family. They were put up in a hotel with a swimming pool, as that’s what they wanted.

You can't help but feel warm and fuzzy when you see a wish like this eventuate.

Pictures: Noah talks to Brisbane Lions players Harris Andrews (right), Linc McCarthy and Ryan Lester and (below) Noah at the MCG.


'It makes me feel really lucky'

There was another wish we did face-to-face in Sydney which was a challenge.

The boy wanted a gaming set up in his bedroom. I was on this wish with Laraine and we both didn’t know much about gaming. We certainly weren’t experts, so that was a challenge to relate to the child when he was talking about his favourite games and favourite screens.

But it was really rewarding when we presented the wish. His parents invited us over and they put on lunch for us.

It’s an example of where you have gone through the whole Wish Journey and built a relationship – you get to know the family – and then you have that moment when the wish is presented and they say 'thank you very much.' That’s very special.

You have put in the time to make the wish happen, but when you do, the family and child show their genuine appreciation.

It was really rewarding and it just puts things in perspective when you are in those moments. So many of the worries we have are just insignificant when you compare them to some of the challenges these families face.

I think the biggest impact when you reflect, is the perspective that it provides you. You often reflect back on when you were a child.

I look back to when I was 10 or 12 years old and think about what the worries were in my life. My worries were around 'how many hours of cricket are we going to play in the front yard?'

So when I reflect on that, I think about the children we work with and whether it's that they don’t have the energy to engage in sport, or they don’t have the energy to attend school for that day, that provides a lot of perspective.

It makes me feel really lucky. I have the ability and capacity to engage and be close to some of these children who are less fortunate. If there is anything I can do to support them, whether it be through their wish or just talking to someone, then I will do it.

The power of creativity is real. We tell these children "Don’t let any barriers get in the way of your wish. It is limitless. Think about whatever you want!"

And I think that is what we struggle with the most as adults because we know all the barriers that exist. Whether it be money, social barriers, or all the stresses that come with being an adult.

When we remove all those barriers and say to wish kids "Think about whatever you want", I think it’s a mindset that as we get older, we should re-adopt.


Ben and Branch provide hope

Certain aspects of the Make-A-Wish experience translate to when I am at work. If there is stress at work, I can put it into perspective by thinking about what some of these families are going through.

There’s nothing wrong with being stressed or worried, but you need the perspective of what other people are going through. It’s very easy to be grateful for what you have.

I think if there’s one thing Make-A-Wish has helped with, then that’s empathy, particularly for young people. I think that’s something we can easily forget. When you work with these young children, you can realise there’s parts of yourself that you haven’t learnt about. You become interested in colouring in, when you are in that environment. Or LEGO. Or playing with toy cars. Those things become exciting.

As you get older you put more limitations on yourself. When you’re working with young children, those barriers don’t exist and it’s very liberating.

You develop an appreciation that there are people out there who just want the best for others.

We have a great team within the Sydney North Branch and our common goal is to provide hope. And to deliver wishes to those who need them. It’s very rewarding. You feel a sense of accomplishment when those wishes are granted.

You reflect and think 'people have benefited from what I am doing.'

It is a unique high you get from Make-A-Wish. It’s so hard to describe. It’s that warm and fuzzy feeling that you get after a wish. You reflect on the smile of the child, you reflect on the gratitude of the parents and the openness and inviting nature of these families.

There’s not a single wish where I have jumped in the car afterwards and thought 'That’s not how I envisaged it'. Every time you think 'That was just fantastic, what I saw.'

And so many have contributed to the wish. It takes a village to make a wish happen. When the team comes together and works on these wishes, the end product is always fantastic.


Wish granting evokes positive emotions

There is a high that you have after a wish. It’s nothing like what you achieve through personal accomplishments in your life. It’s certainly a feeling I would like everyone to experience in their life. It would make the world a better place if everyone knew how good that feeling is of helping someone else.

If you’re considering whether to join, it will provide you satisfaction and a feeling of accomplishment you won’t be able to achieve elsewhere.

You’re surrounded by supportive people in a Branch and it’ll take you further than you ever imagined.

We have a monthly Branch catch up, and it’s just fantastic the people you are meeting. You might discuss things outside Make-A-Wish, just to understand what’s going on in people’s lives. People have their own journeys and stories, whether it’s a family member being ill. So, you’re constantly reminded of the fragility of life when you have these conversations.

You create friendships that are very different and you share a common goal to deliver wishes.

When you share each other’s wish stories and learn from one another.

It’s that feeling when you deliver that wish or engage in that conversation with the family for the first time, nothing can replicate that. I think that it puts things into perspective. My full-time job is not life or death; my umpiring is solely for fun but at Make-A-Wish, there is a very tangible effect you are having on these families.

When you are trying to find your purpose or your why, you are picking from different jars of what is going to provide you with fulfillment. And Make-A-Wish is one of those jars that is so important to my life’s puzzle.

Ben has been a proud volunteer since 2022