Behind The Wish - Deb

Meet Deb Whisson - a magnificent Make-A-Wish volunteer of 17 years.

As part of the Barossa Valley Branch, Deb has been pivotal in many wishes coming true, including a little boy named Dwayne's wish to go to the moon.

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


Fishing, kids and nursing

I was born in Adelaide but raised mostly in country South Australia.

I grew up in the era where you would just head off to the beach with a group of friends and come back when you needed to eat. I was probably very lucky.

We would build cubbies in the sand hills. It was very country, I suppose. Then I went to boarding school in high school.

Dad was a CEO in local government so we did move across a lot of the state.

I spent most of my formative years on Eyre Peninsula near Port Lincoln. My parents were heavily involved in volunteering and I guess that’s where seeds were planted for me. It’s a really nice way of meeting people, having that sense of community.

Mum was heavily into netball, and fundraising for disabled kids. And Dad was involved in the Country Fire Service, fighting fires. And he was the treasurer of the local race club.

He leased a couple of horses with a friend but, mind you, he didn’t become a millionaire but he really loved it. Animals featured a lot in our world.

I am a registered nurse and moved to the south-east of South Australia to complete my training. I’m also a midwife so I did midwifery study. Met my husband and got married. I was child and family health nurse for 29 years.

I did work as a midwife for a considerable time, working a lot of night shifts to pay the mortgage.

Then I went into community child health, Monday to Friday, more regular family hours. Still working with newborns and young children. I guess there’s that segway with Make-A-Wish, working with young children has always appealed to me.

I have two adult daughters. The eldest will be 40 next year so it makes me feel very old and my youngest daughter is 34.

The eldest one is an assistant principal in charge of behaviour management and my younger one works in finance for Wolf Blass. Luckily, they have jobs and I have grandchildren. I have three grandchildren.

The last 12 months I have been retired. It was a pretty easy decision.

I had a really lovely career with child and family health but the two grandchildren were arriving and we wanted to be involved in their care when their parents went back to work.

And my father died last year so I had more time at home with him. He was 88. It was great to be around him and not have worries about work. It worked out beautifully. Mum passed away a few years back. The cycle of life. The new children arriving.

We have been out crabbing and fishing lately, I am married to a mad fisherman. We have friends coming over, we have more time to spend with friends and families.

And we can do some travelling. Catherine Cox and I are sharing the secretary role for the Barossa Branch as we both want to be able to go away travelling.

Being involved in my grandchildren’s’ lives is the most important thing now. We are a very close-knit family. I also have a close-knit group of nursing friends and we go walking.

We walked the Great Ocean Road over five days.

Walking during day and good food and wine at night.

This year we hope to do another a long walk. We wouldn’t mind doing Kangaroo Island.


'Ignited by the passion of the Branch'

It was 15 or so years ago when I joined Make-A-Wish.

Someone I was working with at the time had a friend who had come from Port Lincoln to the Barossa and then the three of us went to a Make-A-Wish information session.

I was really open to that because my kids were older and I had some time on my hands. One of the reasons that appealed to me – apart from working with families and children – is that you meet people in the community you wouldn’t otherwise come across. That was the starting point.

It was an information session and it just appealed to me. I probably didn’t know much about it all.

I just got to know a little bit more about it, and I was ignited by the passion of the Branch. They are a very inspirational group of people.

You weren’t allowed into the actual meeting, just the info session.

We were invited back to a formal meeting and I guess just heard about what they were doing and went from there.

My daughter had cardiac surgery when she was a baby. She was very lucky and she’s now a fit and healthy woman.

So, I guess I was always mindful that the HeartKids charity wasn’t local.

That personal stuff resonated with me and probably played a part in me joining Make-A-Wish.

I did one year as Wish Granting Co-ordinator and I had a lot of support from my youngest daughter in the background doing IT stuff.

There’s a couple of other roles like Assistant Secretary.

I guess we really valued people who had been giving their time or money or helping out Make-A-Wish in the local community so we had a person writing thank you letters. So, I did that, it was my little thing. Letters and certificates of thanks.

Then we would have merchandise we would sell.

My shed became the merchandise drop-off. We lived right in the town and it was central for everyone to pick up stuff.

That’s no longer a role, because we haven’t got merchandise anymore. I used to wrangle that side of things.


Aiming for the moon - and getting there

One of my favourite wishes was a little boy named Dwayne.

We went to meet him and his family and he was only four, and he was obsessed with everything to do with the moon and he wanted to go to the moon. We went and saw him several times.

To watch that wish go from ‘we don’t know what this little fella’s wanting’ because of challenges with communication to the wish happening was great.

He was very passionate about everything to do with the moon. He wanted to go to the moon. We thought ‘how on earth are we going to wrangle this wish’ but on reflection it just came together.

We did go back lots to see Dwayne and plan the wish. We had a nice connection with the Adelaide Airport and the Make-A-Wish head office, so it just grew like topsy.

It was just very joyous.

They set up a whole hangar at the Adelaide Airport.

The whole of Qantas was on board and the Stormtroopers turned up from Star Wars. I learned a lot about Star Wars. With all the wishes you learn a lot. Dwayne’s wish was special.

His grandparents became quite involved. They were just blown away by the magic of the wish.

We have carols every second year on the lawns of the Yalumba winery and we would shake the tins and collect money for Make-A-Wish.

And Dwayne’s whole family came and we sat together. It was 12 months after the wish. It just shows how connected we are with the community.


Special feelings from getting results

Another one I have been involved in recently was a French bulldog wish. She’s struggling with a life-threatening illness.

Her family had a dog but she wanted one for herself. Two of the wish team got to go to the airport to get the dog and surprise the family.

But because of COVID and her health we never got to see the dog after it was delivered.

So, we organised a picnic in the park to meet her and the dog again. I emailed the mum to see what date would be good for the family to do the picnic.

And sadly, she’s in for surgery again. Even though the wish has been granted it’s that ongoing connection.

The fact the family took the time to reply and let us know the news shows they wanted to still connect. That’s really special.

I am an emotional person, that’s the tricky bit with wishes. Even relaying that story about the French Bulldog to you today, I feel emotional.

That’s why it is useful to debrief with our fellow Branch members because we do come across kids that don’t make it.

I remember a little fella who got to have his wish in Queensland, came home and then passed.

But it was a good thing he got to have his wish. One of the members of our branch went to his funeral.

I think it’s the impact not just on the wish child, but on the family. They are bogged down with appointments and medical treatments.

Seeing them get some benefit as well as grandparents and siblings is a real bonus. We are very aware that sometimes siblings of the wish child can be forgotten. We try to include them as much as we can.

It's a positive, joyful distraction for the parents.


Thinking outside the box to raise money

I found out once at an event at Government House that in Spain, Make-A-Wish is included in the discharge plan for children leaving hospital.

They value the psychological benefit of a wish that they include it in the discharge plan. A lot of our members are nurses and they thought that was very impressive.

Make-A-Wish has forced me to get better with my I.T skills.

During COVID I learnt how to use Zoom and to deal with some challenging Zoom interactions with kids with autism. Working as a team it was good, we got through it.

Being part of Make-A-Wish makes me feel very blessed that I’ve got healthy grandchildren.

You come across people who are really doing it tough so it does make you very grateful.

Gratitude is really important. I guess coming across different families with different values,

I have done that all my working life. It’s just another extension of that, looking at how families become resilient despite what they are going through.

I think Make-A-Wish makes you feel what you are doing is worthwhile.

And you feel like you belong within a group of people.

We did bar work for 300 people at the Wolf Blass Christmas event. We were managing the bar and different people came up and were talking about Make-A-Wish.

We all have our RSA (Responsible Service of Alcohol) certificates. The Hunter Branch and our branch work at a lot of events.

I have been involved in a couple of wishes in Western Australia via Zoom. I know some of the other girls have done a whole lot more. During COVID we couldn’t do a lot of fundraising so we thought that would be a way to do something productive, helping another branch with wishes.

The most memorable one, because I have done it three times, is the Kapunda Rodeo. My husband was involved on the gate, I would do service of alcohol. We couldn’t do it last time; we couldn’t get people who were available on the day.

We had a great 20th anniversary high tea, turning it into a fundraiser.

It was my idea to have high tea and we had all the Make-A-Wish kids and families. It celebrated all the achievements of the branch.

We do work the bar at wineries and the money goes to Make-A-Wish.

We used to do our fair share of weddings.

I have done some guest speaking at service clubs, with Vicki, more of a PR exercise. Putting it out there about what we do.


Wishes impact the whole family

Even though our branch isn’t huge we have a lot of connections in the community.

Most of the local schools, we have a cohort of teachers who know us.

Our aim is to deliver a child’s cherished wish. We may get questions around monetary values for wishes. It empowers families.

I think people have to make their own informed decision about joining Make-A-Wish. We have an information session coming up soon.

Generally, we have lost people because they have shifted from the area, they have retired or whatever.

It’s a really great way of meeting new people and forming new friendships.

Some people may be worried about dealing with families going through such tough times because they might struggle with the emotional side of being around children with chronic illness.

A lot of people don’t really have an understanding of the back story: the benefits for the whole family. It’s not just a big gift or outing for the child.

It’s also about the power of a wish in the emotional recovery of a child.

It’s just being there to make their lives brighter when they are going through a tough time.

We are a group of people from many walks of life, ages and we have all brought different skills sets to the branch.

Over the years we just bring our skills and rely on each and that team camaraderie and always have a bit of fun. We have dinner prior to meetings at the pub where they are held. We share our own journeys.

You get to know each other and what they are going through; joyous stuff, hard stuff. If someone is doing it tough, we make take on one of their roles until they are better.

There’s lots of laughs. Probably Vickie Lester or Mel Hooker, they would be the funniest in the branch. The two loudest, they won’t mind me saying it!

Deb has been proudly volunteering since 2006