Behind The Wish - Dana Vlamis
Meet Dana Vlamis - a singer, psychologist and one of the mainstays of the Make-A-Wish Melbourne Branch.
We look at Dana's enormous contribution to and passion for granting inspirational wishes, and changing lives of sick children.
Behind The Wish is our series of inspirational reads diving into the everyday superheroes involved in creating life-changing wishes.
Empathy learned during formative years
I grew up in Yea in country Victoria and I am one on seven kids.
Only in the last couple of years have I moved down to Melbourne to complete university.
I am 26 now. I have been with Make-A-Wish since I was 18. It’s been eight years. I have other family members in the branch. My sister Sophie (aka Sophia) was the first one to join. She’s now the President of our Melbourne Branch.
Terry, our younger brother, also joined and he is the PR person at our branch. He is 22 and he also joined when he was 18. My other siblings and their partners, and our partners, always help with events.
We lost my little brother when I was younger (to SIDS) and I also lived through the Black Saturday fires, and that had a really profound effect on me.
I was in Year 7 at the time and most of my friends were from Kinglake, the areas that were really affected.
So although we didn’t lose anything I had friends who lost family members and who watched their houses burn. We were kids trying to wrap our heads around this kind of tragedy.
So now as an adult and being a provisional psychologist, I am I have built a level of resilience, but when I walk away from those experiences you feel it deeply and you can’t separate it.
Hearing stories of tragedy or stories of amazing resilience and perseverance, it makes you catch your breath and think how grateful you are to have your health.
You have so much empathy and so much feeling when you hear stories about very young kids who have terminal illness.
They are heartbreaking. Those deeply-set emotions I can cover them well when I am talking to a parent because I want them to feel comfortable and I don’t want them to feel emotional, but as soon as you get behind closed doors the flood of tears just comes.
Emotions that were sitting there locked become unlocked.
In 2023, life is very hectic. Dad has Alzheimer’s Disease and it’s quite profound Alzheimer’s.
He was diagnosed in 2016. And it was quite stable up until last year.
And then it dramatically declined. He went from still recognising you and holding conversations and being fairly independent to not knowing his surroundings, not being aware, being incontinent, not sleeping and wandering,
That happened literally within months. So I moved back with my parents to support them but I am also working full-time as a provisional psychologist and I am actually the deputy director of my company.
It’s an allied health practice, mainly psychology but we have social workers and we are hiring speech pathologists. Over the last couple of years it’s just expanded.
So it’s been busy juggling family life with work life, and of course Make-A-Wish, which I love and feel very passionate about.
Mum struggles a lot so I moved back in with them to support her with dad. And my younger brother also lives there as well.
She’s got carer’s fatigue. She’s got a lot of burnout.
But also seeing your partner, someone you envisioned a life with and ageing being peaceful, and now he’s deteriorated so quickly.
And because she doesn’t speak English and she doesn’t really know how to use technology, she’s really dependent on the support of us.
We are a very big family and we’re very loud and we have very big personalities, typical Greek background. When something so terrible happens to a family you do get closer.
It does pull you together, even though it’s a really horrible experience the relationships we have and continue to build are quite beautiful.
We have always been close but the last couple of years has just elevated those relationships.
Giving back to the community drives Dana
When I finished high school I was very much involved with the community and I was looking for something to connect to.
Something to support and give my time to. I was a university student working in my family’s cafes and restaurants.
So, I had so much extra time I wasn’t doing much and Sophie (pictured below) said ‘you should join Make-A-Wish’.
I was already doing the barbecues, tin rattling, and the trivia nights. I already had relationships with people in the Branch so it just felt like the natural next step to me.
And at that time I was also volunteering for Lifeline and Beyond Blue and a lot of the Lifeline stuff was with young kids talking about their mental health challenges.
And one of those kids happened to be a Wish recipient and I discussed it with Sophie and she said ‘put your application in’. The process was incredibly quick and I haven’t looked back.
During the COVID period, it was a challenge for all of Make-A-Wish.
We had so many wishes running at once and we were doing so many activities and seeing people regularly that when that stopped it really challenged us. I actually felt quite inadequate because I couldn’t support anybody.
I am not there in any capacity. I am on the end of an email. But nobody is actually seeing us, they’re not getting their wishes and home visits stopped.
In that first year it was really challenging for myself, how could I give back to the community and how could I feel like I’m doing something within the organisation.
The year prior one of our long term vols, Stef, had taken some time away so I stepped up so I could have some more involvement.
So, I jumped into leadership roles. I have taken on Volunteer Care Coordinator and Secretary.
I do Volunteer Care Coordinator with Chris (Tucker). It’s super collaborative. It’s so beautiful to be connected to people who are passionate about the organisation.
I am a provisional psychologist and I am about to become registered. It’s been a long slog to get here. In 2014 I finished high school and started study in 2015.
I should be registered very soon to be an independent psychologist.
I was always in hospitality working for my parents. I would open the shop with dad. The weekends after university I would drive back to Yea and work.
I am a musician, singer-songwriter. Sophie and Terry are creative too. I had my own band before COVID and then we steered away from gigging.
Now I do single acoustic gigs by myself. Sometimes I do gigs at wineries. My genre is a mix of folk and pop. That really gentle blend of sound. I love singing ballads and very emotional songs.
Having Sophie as president does have its challenges at times. I don’t want to disappoint her.
Obviously with my siblings at Make-A-Wish, it is a personal connection. Make-A-Wish for me has always been incredibly humbling and incredibly grounding. And I have made some really beautiful friendships.
I feel because Sophie is my sister and the president there’s a high level of expectation, because if there’s something that needs to happen we are right there and can contact each other.
But also, there’s that element of not wanting to disappoint her and Make-A-Wish national office. Our relationship is really solid but I don’t want to do anything that’s going to upset Sophie.
In my own mind whatever I do has got to be good.
We are all Essendon supporters. Our family are big Essendon supporters. Sophie introduced AFL footy tipping to keep the Branch collaborative and engaged during lockdowns.
Seeing the impact up close
My all-time favourite wish was for a 14-year-old who would now be in her 20s.
At the time she wanted to see Pink. She wanted to meet Pink. She loved Pink but she was diagnosed with a stage 3 cancer and her prognosis was that she wouldn’t make it past 18.
Pink had all these inspirational lyrics and the child really connected to Pink’s lyrics. When we went to the wish child’s house,
I was with (fellow volunteer) Chris Tucker and we asked her what she wanted and she didn’t even say she wanted to meet Pink, she just said ‘I want to be at the concert’.
And when I asked her ‘why do you love Pink’ she started listing all of these lyrics that really were symbolic.
That described her being a fighter, that described her defying the odds, that really connected and she stated even though it wasn’t written about her, to her or for her, this song called ‘F****n Perfect’ was hers.
She connected so deeply with what was written she felt it was exactly what she needed in her life at that time to help her.
And her family were like ‘if it wasn’t for the music, we don’t think she would be with us because we think she would have committed suicide’.
We got really, really close with the family. We went to Make-A-Wish national office and we said 'this is what the child wants'.
The wish child wants tickets to the Pink concert, they want the memorabilia and Make-A-Wish national office turned around and said ‘why don’t we get her to meet Pink, have a conversation with Pink and get some photos done’.
So, the whole family went, they got a limousine to the concert at Rod Laver Arena.
It was that time Pink had 14 concerts all sold out. She met Pink and Pink sat there with her for 15 minutes.
The mum called us afterwards. She said when Pink played the song ‘F****n Perfect’ her daughter cried the whole time and then she looked at her mum and said ‘this is what I am meant to do. This is why I am meant to be here’,
This is why we do what we do, it makes a difference and makes an impact.
Years later as an adult, the wish child has her lyrics tattooed on her arm to remind her to keep pushing and keep fighting.
I connected so heavily with that wish because from such a simple request of ‘I just want to go to a concert and see my favourite artist’ it was such a profound impact.
And on her family too, I am sure it’s still something they connect over. And that individual has now defied all the odds, is completely healthy and in remission.
It was so incredible to see the anticipation, to have Pink memorabilia delivered, to have a pink cake and balloons delivered.
That was maybe my 10th or 15th wish but that was the one that really stood out to me. It was such a simple request but it had the biggest impact.
'It’s not just a moment in time. It’s almost like it’s tattooed on their brain forever.'
One of my other wishes was also a simple one. The wish child was an equestrian rider aged about 9 or 10. She just wanted a horse.
Her family lived on a very small block of land in the middle of suburbia, so it was not possible to have a horse.
But what she wanted was to just ride a horse and to be involved in the horsing world. So, they went to where the Saddle Club is filmed, in or near Coldstream, and she got to be a horse instructor for the day and she got to take photos with horses and got to name a horse.
She had an amazing day. It was a fun exciting day, this little girl got to play with horses. It had a massive impact on the family because they got to see their daughter so enamoured and filled with joy in this one little containment.
They showed us all the videos later of her being on a horse and galloping. Even though it was something so small, the expressions on the little girl’s face and how happy the mother and father were, was just incredible.
There’s always so much build up leading into a wish. In that build up what we don’t really see because we are only in there for a snapshot, is a child who has been thinking about a wish for a really long time.
Describing it, dreaming of it, and then it happens. And they get these memories.
It’s not just a moment in time. It’s almost like it’s tattooed on their brain forever. It’s so wholesome, it's so unique and it’s so special and it doesn’t just impact them, it impacts their family.
It’s a story they can share for many years after. It’s uniquely theirs and nobody has an experience like it because it’s completely tailored to that child’s needs.
It’s incredibly special what Make-A-Wish does. And no other organisations are able to do what Make-A-Wish does and that’s what makes it so unique.
I recently completed a wish with Nadine from Make-A-Wish HQ but the wish had been in the works since 2017.
So, it’s a really long wish. It’s for a child named Thomas who wants to be a presenter, who wants to do public speaking, and when we met him as a 14-year-old he was in love with the Melbourne Football Club and just wanted to do a speech to the players.
And when we went to visit him – and he lives just down the road – it was all about public speaking and being motivated to inspire. And then it went quiet. There was no contact from the family. It’s very hard when you have a third party that’s directing the outcome – in this case the football club.
And because it’s been so many years, Thomas is now a young adult and not the young boy we first met. And he’s more confident.
He’s actually worked with public speakers and he’s been around with people who are published authors. He now has so much empathy, courage and charisma.
He has had six years, building up to this with very minimal contact because of COVID and lockdowns derailing it.
This family was sitting there thinking they are never going to get a wish. And Thomas almost lost hope. But he has done some really amazing public speaking things and now he’s inspired his favourite team before they run onto the field. It’s really amazing.
Thomas is very driven and very articulate now and the confidence he has now shines through. He was an adolescent who hid behind his mum but now he’s a very self-assured young man.
The wish will probably inspire his career long-term.
Building your own character and resilience while helping sick kids
You get into Make-A-Wish because you want to support people and it’s all altruistic but the parents are living through hell.
They are living through a nightmare, no one wants to have their baby go through a serious illness but I have never encountered a negative conversation with a parent.
No matter how big their upheaval is or the distress is they’re going through or the horrifying stories and experiences they’ve witnessed, they are so kind and so generous and so giving of their time and they just want the best for their child.
They are always so open, so vulnerable and so authentic and you walk away feeling inspired by them. I have never had a negative interaction with a parent.
They always open their homes and it doesn’t matter what they are going through they are always available to have a conversation. They have so much soul and so much character.
You join because you want to do something that’s selfless.
But you’re actually being selfish in a great way, not a bad way.
You’re getting so much from it. You’re building relationships, you’re building friendships, you’re supporting people through really dark, tragic times and you feel a sense of awareness. It hits home, although you’re giving you are also taking a lot.
You are learning from those people, you are building your own character and resilience.
You learn from them and you are constantly growing. I have learned so much from the families I have interacted with and the Melbourne Branch Make-A-Wish community.
To be able to learn and grow and better myself as a volunteer is amazing and I take it with me into my everyday life. It has that snowball effect. I have learnt a lot of insight, compassion and how to be really present because you have to be really present in Make-A-Wish.
I think I can speak for (my siblings) Sophie and for Terry, we give up our time freely to be there not because we have to but because it’s an active choice. We want to be present.
Sophie has been there for 12 years, I have been there for eight, Terry has been there for three: its constant and we are always choosing it.
We want to be there.
You make time for the things that are important to you and Make-A-Wish is so important to us and to who we are as individuals.
There’s no hesitation. If someone wants something done for Make-A-Wish we jump at it.
If you’re thinking about joining Make-A-Wish, my advice is to jump in.
Don’t hesitate. Not just the effect it’s going to have on other people’s lives but the effect it’s going to have on yours is incredible.
The friendships you are going to make in Make-A-Wish, they are authentic and genuine. People connect over something so profound. You have these incredible experiences and you learn so much and you support so many people in different capacities, it’s such a fulfilling and beautiful spot to land. Everybody is there for a soul-shared purpose.
Jump in with two feet, you might find your best friend, your best memories or your best moments. It’s so rewarding being able to make even 1 per cent difference in someone’s life, that is massive.
Recently when we did the tin-rattling in the street I wore the Make-A-Wish t-shirt and I went into the supermarket and a couple of people stopped me and asked ‘what is Make-A-Wish’ and ‘I see you are wearing that top but what do you guys actually do’ and I literally had a conversation with random people for about half an hour talking about Make-A-Wish.
When you do put this top on it’s a badge of honour. It symbolises so much.
You feel so amazing and proud to wear it and to represent the organisation and to do something incredibly fun and engaging.
You are one volunteer. But in that one position you can have so much impact.
When people ask me what Make-A-Wish is the first word that jumps into my mind is ‘connection’.
But then I also say Make-A-Wish is an incredibly wholesome and encapsulating opportunity to give back. Make-A-Wish is building connections and giving people the opportunity to have a little opportunity of joy.
When people ask me if it’s worth it, 100pc it’s worth it.
I have never heard anyone say I don’t want to do Make-A-Wish anymore. It’s a really small investment for a really big impact.
Dana has been proudly volunteering since 2016