Behind The Wish - Michelle Mackenzie

Meet Michelle Mackenzie - an American-born volunteer with the Cairns Branch.

For just over a year, Michelle Mackenzie has been making wishes happen in Far North Queensland.

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


Experiencing the wonders of the world

I grew up in Tampa Bay, Florida.

My parents are both from The Bronx in New York but they decided sunny Florida would be better to raise kids. It was a standard house with a pool in the backyard.

I went to Catholic schools. It was a pretty strict upbringing.

My parents got divorced when I was 13 and because of that I had family in Malaysia and I went there for the summer to get away and that put the wanderlust in me to see the world.

As an adult I have been to 45 countries. I was in Italy for three years, then I didn’t want to go back to the States so in 2007 there was an opportunity to go to Australia.

A former employer of mine had won a big contract in Australia with the Australian Government and they were reaching out to former employees who knew the software. So they reached out to me and said ‘would you like to come to Australia?’ and I said yes.

I was in software design and project management.

It was interesting because that work environment was very multicultural, lots of Americans and Irish and Indians. People from all over, many different accents.

They wanted a two-year commitment but it was in Canberra and I had done my research and said ‘no I am not going to commit to two years, just one year’. I was a single girl and I didn’t know anybody.

Anyway, here we are, all these years later and I am an Australian citizen and I am here to stay. I absolutely love it.

I was living in Rome, Italy, before coming to Australia so it was quite a bit of a culture shock. Canberra was very quiet and it was like The Truman Show, everything seemed perfect.

It was very easy to meet people, it was really great. I just met amazing people and formed friendships.


Falling in love with a Canadian

I was planning to leave Australia so as a last hurrah I took a trip to Antarctica, it was six-day tour.

I wanted to have helicopters on the boat we were on. I was supposed to go with a friend who backed out.

And I thought if I don’t do it now, I’ll never do it. I didn’t know when an opportunity like this would come up again.

I went by myself and my future husband was a helicopter pilot on the boat. He was living in Cairns.

We met on the boat, and we wondered if it was just a holiday romance but eight months later Casey and I got married.

I moved to Cairns. I was going to quit my job but they said I could do it from Cairns so I do. He’s the coolest person I have ever met in my life.

Very funny, adventurous, and he’s actually Canadian born. So not that different.

It’s nice we both emigrated to Australia, so when we go back to North America we see both our families.

Australians don’t take themselves too seriously. It’s very laidback here, there’s just not the drama and the news cycle or the feeling of keeping up with the Joneses. Everybody is super welcoming here.

Prior to the pandemic I was flying to Brisbane three weeks a month and then when the pandemic hit I had to work from home.

And now no one wants to pay for that travel, so there’s been a shift and the focus is making a life full-time in Cairns.

We went to Japan in May. We went to the Grand Prix in Melbourne. Things are getting back to normal. Seeing friends, family and the world as opposed to being stuck in Queensland for three years.


Wish families 'are so positive and uplifting'

I had been looking for an opportunity to volunteer but nothing was interesting me, I wasn’t feeling it.

And then I purchased the Cairns Post on a weekend. I had the physical paper in my hands and there was an ad for Make-A-Wish volunteers.

And I thought ‘maybe this is it?’ so I picked up the phone while sitting on my couch and started filling in the text fields in the application form.

I wrote that I felt like Australia has given so much and I feel very fortunate here and I am looking for a way to give back and Make-A-Wish seems like a great organisation.

I know Make-A-Wish is quite big in the US so I just feel like I have always known about it. Then my sister had become a Make-A-Wish volunteer in 2019 in Seattle.

So of course, she said some amazing things about it.

I thought maybe I wouldn’t be a good fit because I hadn’t had any volunteer experience or experience with children and I don’t have my own children.

But I went for it and I was lucky enough to be given an opportunity.

When I first joined Make-A-Wish in 2022 everything was online. Home visits happened via Zoom. So it was a really interesting way to learn. But now I have had a couple of home visits and wish captures and some of the wishes that have been on hold we can now start making happen.

I have been a volunteer now for over 12 months and it’s better than I imagined it would be. The other volunteers are amazing.

We struggled to make friends in Cairns and I can’t believe the friendships in the branch and how everyone genuinely cares about one another.

We genuinely are interested in each other and that’s something I wasn’t expecting.

And the parents, I am just blown away by the wish families.

That they are going through the unimaginable and they are just so positive and so uplifting and so appreciative.

They are thanking us and I’m thinking I am getting more out of this than they realise. It’s been really rewarding.

Then I tell people we have one child who is doing 68 weeks of chemo and they live two hours from Cairns.

So, every Tuesday his mum drives him to Cairns Base Hospital for chemo. And we met at the hospital and I had gotten there a bit early.

I had my Make-A-Wish shirt on and I was walking through the hospital and even in the parking lot everyone who saw me said hello or said ‘good on you’ or stopped and asked me about Make-A-Wish.

And I thought if ever I am having a bad day this is just the thing … I just feel whenever we go anywhere wearing the shirt it just brings such a positive energy.


Michelle makes wishes a priority

We have one wish mum who says she’s not used to such generosity and she’s not sure if they are deserving of it.

And maybe, she said, she would like to work with Make-A-Wish.

We always just say it’s just a joy and pleasure and a gift for us as well.

I was on leave over last Christmas and we were trying to make a time for a wish capture and the wish parent said ‘I don’t want you to do this during your holidays’ and I said ‘this is how I want to spend my holidays'.

This is so joyful for me to meet these families and help them out’.

It’s not work. I would much rather Make-A-Wish stuff than anything else. We just try and reassure parents that it’s what we are here to do and we love it.

The timing of Make-A-Wish was great. During the pandemic we were just stuck at home. You feel you are kind of wasting time, just working.

So, Make-A-Wish has helped me break that cycle, that feeling of being in a rut, and do something meaningful.

I thought I would be stuck in that rut for a while but we have so many children and so few volunteers. You can give as much time as you want.

I feel so touched by these families in a way I never thought I would be. I was only thinking about the children.

When I first joined, we lost a child. I wasn’t on that wish. We were all contributing to it because it was a child under 4, we were doing a hamper.

At the next branch meeting, I said ‘what happened with the hamper?’ I wasn’t on the wish team so didn’t get notified. It was really devastating but it was nice to see how Make-A-Wish handled it.

I saw the team pull through and lent on each other. I feel like if it were to happen to a child and I was on their team, I would feel very well supported by Make-A-Wish.


Teamwork makes the dream work in Cairns

I don’t know why we have a shortage of volunteers in Cairns. I just want to put the word out and say it’s so easy and I think sometimes people are hesitant.

But I really enjoy it when people ask me about Make-A-Wish and I give examples of the wishes. I love talking about it. I am Volunteer Care Coordinator so I onboard volunteers.

We have Lachlan, a teenager whose wish is to learn to fly. He is super keen to work with Make-A-Wish when he’s older. That’s amazing the wish kids want to give back immediately.

He just got his first certificate a few months ago so we went out to the airport for that. His instructor presented him with his certificate and now he has got to have lessons.

His wish is to be a pilot and fly a plane. There is no age to be a pilot, it’s just a matter of being able to touch the pedals. He is hoping he can join the air force. He wants to join the NASA space program.

We had a boy whose wish was to throw snowballs with his brother. He brought all his friends to laser tag and we had a cake and that’s when Anaconda had donated all the clothing to go to the snow, and we had his plane tickets and all that.

I think I have done four wish captures. One of them took a couple of visits. We had one boy, who is 4, who doesn’t know what he wants so we will be meeting him again to see what he wants.

We are just giving these families that excitement, and anticipation for something positive and the time of their lives. To take their mind off medical treatments. T

he whole family benefits. With the little boy who is throwing snowballs with his brother we are sending the whole family to the snow.

You could see the genuine excitement we when we presented him with his snow boots. He immediately wanted to put them on and he didn’t want to take them off.

We take care of everything. And for once they don’t have to think of logistics because there’s so many logistics in their lives.

So many of these families have 3 or 4 children. These wishes impact whole families. It’s something to look forward to.

Sometimes the parents don’t realise the lengths we can go to to make things happen.

We have one boy who is non-verbal. He is really into touch and textures so we are going to send him to the snow. And the mum even thought ‘are you sure, we are a family of five, that sounds really big’ but he loves to make snow angels in the sand.

I don’t think she thought going to the snow was a possibility. But they are all going to the snow. It gives the families a bit of a break, something that’s not centred around treatment.

In the Cairns Branch we all have our roles … but you can do whatever you want, there’s no boundaries with the roles.

You can be involved in all phases of the wish if you want to. We all participate in everything but if there’s something someone feels strongly about, we can tailor their experience around that.

The fact we don’t have those boundaries around who is doing what, is a plus. Because we don’t have enough people, others jump in. It’s almost if someone says no, the rest of us can’t say yes quick enough.

We did a fundraising trivia night. And I couldn’t believe how generous people were. I was selling lucky dip tickets and you would go to tables and we had $2 and $5 tickets and then you’d go back and they’d buy again and you’d go back a third time and they’d buy them again. Then they would be calling you over so they could buy more. It was incredible.

We did a Bunnings sausage sizzle. Of course, I had been many times and seen a sausage sizzle but doing it was a real cultural experience. Some want the onions on the top, some want the onions on the bottom. We raised quite a bit.

We have no intention of moving from Cairns. But if we did, I would definitely transfer to a different Make-A-Wish branch.

Michelle has been a proud volunteer since 2022