Behind The Wish - Lesley Prout

Meet Lesley Prout - one of the leaders of the Virtual Star Catchers Team.

After a lifetime spent educating children with disabilities, Lesley Prout moved seamlessly into Make-A-Wish's Virtual Star Catchers.

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


A lifetime of teaching

I was born in Melbourne and spent my early years in Kensington and then my grandfather, who was a returned serviceman, got a loan for a house in Glenroy. That’s where my childhood was.

I have two children and six grandchildren.

I started as a primary school teacher. My first job was down at what was Broadmeadows West right in the thick of the housing commission area. So, it was a pretty tough introduction to education!

I only taught for 18 months, leaving at age 21 to have my son. I returned briefly but he was always unwell and so I was forced to resign.

I was out of teaching for nine years and when I returned, I did kinder teaching for a little bit. I was going to retrain and do kinder teaching or early childhood but a friend of mine worked at what was then Yooralla and said they desperately needed CRTs or replacement teachers.

I did it once and didn’t think it was for me but they asked me to come back for a week and I just loved it. So, I ended up working there for 31 years at what later became Glenroy Specialist School

Initially there were a lot of post-polio kids. A lot of the kids were mobile but then the local Spastic Society (now called Scope) schools closed down so we started to get kids with incredibly high needs.

We ended up with kids with multiple, complex disabilities.

It was a huge learning curve over the years and I learnt something new every one of them, because of the nature of the changes. It was a wonderful career.

I ended up in leadership in the end, working on a curriculum trying to think how we teach our deaf, blind and intellectually disabled kids.

In a lot of ways, Make-A-Wish is just a follow-on from what I was doing because they are all just kids.

I retired 2018 just before COVID.

Initially a lot of my time was spent with my grandkids but they are grown up now, they are teenagers or adults. What’s important to me now is really keeping busy and my health.

I love spending weekends at Yarrawonga where we have a holiday house. I am also an avid reader and part of a monthly book club. I enjoy theatre and musicals, and travelling with my husband and friends.

I walk with a lovely group of ladies on Wednesdays as part of the University of the Third Age, go to the gym and walk our dog most other days, too.

Picture: Lesley (middle) on one of her Wednesday walks with friends Chris (right) and Anne.


Virtual role suits Lesley

There is common ground between my education career and Make-A-Wish. It’s still giving back to and keeping involved with the community and I think that’s what I felt I missed when I retired.

There were a couple of years after I retired where there was nothing inspiring happening: especially during Covid. I am the sort of person who needs to be involved and joining Make-A-Wish just seemed to be a natural progression.

One of the young teacher aides I worked with for years left to become a nurse and she said ‘now you’re retired you want to do something like Make-A-Wish’. I had been trying to work out where to go, I wanted to do something. I contacted Make-A-Wish and put my name down and they said it would be a bit of a wait.

They had quite a long list of people who wanted to join. Then COVID came and the idea of a Virtual Team came up.

Make-A-Wish got in touch and said ‘we have handpicked a few people and you are one, what do you think?’ and that was it.

I would have just joined the local Make-A-Wish Branch but this, working virtually, suits me even more as I can log on from our holiday house. It's great to have that flexibility.

Initially 12 of us started the virtual team. None of us knew what we were doing, so (head office staff member) Olivia led the whole thing.

Then the numbers dropped and we only had three of us and then we got a new team and I was asked if I would like to lead it.

I’m now the Wish Granting Coordinator of the team, which is called the Virtual Star Catchers.

That involves basically overseeing what’s happening. The wishes will come to me from HQ and I will assign them to our team. All of the team members are from different states.

We have 27 in the team but some are on leave so now have 25 active members but it fluctuates so much.

Some weeks when we get a real glut of wishes I’ll spend a long time on Wish things. A few of us have taken on the whole journey so I’ll do the anticipation phase too. I have about 30 wishes on the go at the moment. Some weeks I will have a capture, reveal and anticipation so those weeks I do a lot of hours.

I am very proud that last year our team actually captured 10% of the total number of wishes.


Seeing wish impact with her own eyes

I have been to one Wish reveal.

The Wish kid was 14 and lived in country Victoria.

He was going to meet The Wiggles in the city. I just said if you need another volunteer, I am more than happy to do it. That was the first time I had met a family face-to-face.

We went to the concert at Rod Laver Arena and then we had the meet and greet with The Wiggles.

Just seeing this wish child’s face was unbelievable. That was a real thrill, I didn’t expect to be able to be there for the Wish Realisation.

I’ll never forget the Wish kid’s mum – if she thanked us once she thanked us six times. The whole thing for the child, and their mate who was also there, was mind-blowing. They arrived in a limo and they stayed in a hotel nearby for the whole weekend. She said it just meant so much to her child. They felt so special on the day. They wanted to show The Wiggles they could dance.

The spotlight was on the Wish child for the day, they got to dance for The Wiggles.

That’s when you really realise the impact of what you’re doing. We don’t normally see the end of the Wish Journey. We get photos but to see it with your eyes you realise it’s worth every second that we put in. You would do it time and time again just to see the impact it had on the Wish kid.

The Wish kid was going to go back to their country town to their special school and tell their mates and show the photos. It just shows the ongoing impact of it.

I guess the high you feel is similar to my line of work in the past where it really is humbling when you have parents going out of their way to thank you. I remember a mum at a parent teacher meeting saying ‘we can’t thank you enough for everything you do’.

And it was a bit of a similar feeling, you get the thank you but really no thanks are needed. The thanks is seeing what the result is.


Touched by teen's gesture

There is another wish that’s really close to my heart.

The family and the wish child were just so amazing. By the time it was finished she was 17. She had kidney issues from when she was little and she had a kidney transplant from her dad.

She was short in stature and her mum said she was bullied relentlessly at school and missed a lot of school. She was just the most gorgeous young teenager.

She had this dog that was elderly and she knew it would eventually die so she wanted a replacement dog but she wanted to have them together for a while.

The wish ended up going on for about two years. She wanted a cavoodle/cavapoo and we got in touch with a breeder and this breeder said ‘I’ll give you one for nothing’.

But it wasn’t exactly the breed she wanted so the breeder sent a photo of the mother, Lola, and the little girl said she will go with it.

Months and months went by and the dog had puppies but only two, which were already committed to others. So, she had to wait again until the next litter.

Her mum sent me a message saying ‘sorry she just wants to know has there been a really sick child who has needed a dog’. She was concerned someone had been so ill that they got her dog before her, not that she had missed out!

And I said it was just a case of the dog hadn’t had puppies and she said that was wonderful and nothing was a problem. They were more than happy to wait.

Finally, they got their dog. The dog was six months old and the mum sent me this beautiful photo thanking us all and how much of a difference the dog had made.

The wish girl wanted to keep it in her room. And it is in her room. She said their old dog was her best friend and she doesn’t have many so she needed to have another friend.

She had finally got the friend she wanted and it was all because of us.

I just thought this girl was amazing, she was so eager to get her dog but she was thinking of other people.


Making a difference

Another wish was a little girl who went to Queensland for an experience with the dolphins.

She had multiple disabilities, including being non-visual, and she was delightful. I just loved doing everything I could for her. I did a sensory book with everything she might find at the beach. The family was so appreciative of my efforts.

It was a natural thing for me to do, it’s the kind of thing I used to do at work.

She couldn’t see, she was so limited. I got a lot of enjoyment out of that because I was hoping what I was sending her would make it real and give her a sense of anticipation she would not have had.

She had a fabulous time swimming with the dolphins. In the photos you could just see the joy she got out of it.

I think we do make a difference.

There’s a boy who has neuroblastoma and the family are going to start next month going to America for treatment every two months. The medication they need is not here in Australia.

He is 9, the most amazing boy and so articulate. The wish has given him hope, something to hang onto. For someone in that situation that’s really serious, really dire, it is vital. He now will think about what he would like for his wish.

Another special wish was for a boy who lived on a farm and wanted a trailbike. His mum said the trailbike would give him the freedom he doesn’t have. He eventually received his wonderful wish trail bike and can now enjoy normal fun experiences with his mates.

The wish might give them something they need at that time to keep going. And it gives the family a massive boost at the time.

There was another where the mum said ‘are you going to be there for the reveal’ and I said ‘no I won’t be’ so she organised a Zoom call so we could see when the little girl got the trampoline and playground she wished for.

She wanted us to see the girl’s face on the trampoline and the playground. The impact is quite amazing in various ways.


'A little part of something amazing'

Make-A-Wish makes you very grateful for what you have got.

I have got my own grandkids who are now young adults. You just realise how precious it is for your kids and your grandkids to have the so-called normal life.

I don’t feel like I do much but it’s just nice when you’re appreciated and you are having that massive impact on people’s lives.

From my perspective I give very little of my time for what they get out of it. The wish kids and families clearly get heaps out of it but I love every minute of it, I really do.

That little bit of time I give for a wish capture, for example, is just the beginning of what will be something quite amazing.

You’re part of a team, and when you get the Wish Design from head office you just look at it and say ‘wow, look at what they have done with it!’. They produce the magic; they are just incredible.

We give as much detail as we can but what we get back is fantastic. There was a recent wish where the wish kid wanted to fly with a unicorn but when we finally saw the design we were going ‘Oh My God, she’s going in a helicopter and they were going to do this and that’. It was so clever what they came up with.

The wish kids – especially teenagers – are so appreciative compared to my own grandkids. I think it would do some teenagers good to see how amazing these young wish kids are. And how appreciative they are how they really get how lucky they are to get a wish.

The young kids who have cystic fibrosis now with the drugs they help a lot but they are in and out of hospital. A young boy I was talking about I said how are you and he said ‘I have my bad days but I am fine’.

I think Make-A-Wish does impact the empathy you have for others. Even though I worked in the disability sector for 30 years, we only had the odd child who had cancer but not like I am exposed to now.

You get someone like the boy recently with neuroblastoma and you kind of look at him and go wow.

When you look at what his mum is doing, the amount of effort his mum and dad are going to. They would walk over hot coals for him to get the medication to help him along. They are doing a massive fundraising gala for him. The mum has to go with him next month to America to get the tablets. You can’t even imagine that kind of life.

Make-A-Wish definitely does change your view on things and how empathetic you are.

You feel extremely grateful that you are a little part of something amazing. You could be having the worst day – and then you get onto a capture and it makes the bad day go away. Some of these kids are just special little human beings and you get off the call feeling just fantastic!

You are just left with that warm fuzzy feeling.

I love the anticipation phase, going shopping and finding things for the kids. And getting the feedback for dropping off the beanie for the snow trip, or whatever it is.

I just love doing it. Same as when I did work, it wasn’t for accolades I just loved doing it.

When you have an impact on the families and children it’s great, that’s why you do it.

I would urge anyone thinking about volunteering with Make-A-Wish to give it a go.

I am just really grateful for my friend suggesting I do it because it’s the perfect thing for me. I love it and appreciate being a part of it.

Lesley has been a proud volunteer since 2021