Behind The Wish - Rick Ielpo

Meet Rick Ielpo - an amazing Make-A-Wish volunteer of 11 years.

Dealing with the loss of both parents, Rick Ielpo felt a calling to join the Make-A-Wish WishForce. With his many years as a volunteer, Rick has seen first-hand how wishes change lives.

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


Dealing with grief

Mum and dad were Italian migrants. From the south of Italy, about an hour’s drive from Naples. A little small country town of 500 people.

They were childhood sweethearts. Mum came out to Australia in January 1956. My grandfather was the year beforehand and set everything up. Mum and dad were writing letters to each other and she told him to come over. She said ‘this is a great place, there are great opportunities here’. So, he came over here. They got married in Melbourne and lived in the Balwyn area. My grandparents lived in Balwyn all their life.

Dad was a bricklayer and mum was a nurse.

Dad passed away in 2010 and mum passed away a year ago (2022). Mum passed from natural causes. Dad passed away from cancer-related issues in his liver and pancreas. He battled it for four years. The pancreas was fixed, the liver was difficult to fix. He battled and battled but eventually his organs just shut down.

Dad was a shock and a half. I remember mum said ‘come over and have dinner’ and my brother was there. It was very hard for my brother and I to get together because he’s very busy. We were having dinner and mum just said ‘OK boys we need to talk’. Boy, I had never heard my mum say things like that before. And my dad was just sitting there. Looking very calm, hands folded. He didn’t say a word. And all of a sudden, she let it out: ‘Dad’s got cancer’. And I cried. I am going to start crying again now. And my father cried. I had never seen my father cry. That was hard to see. I turned around and said ‘OK dad let’s fight it, let’s go’ and ‘anything you want let me know’ because mum didn’t drive. So, we were back and forward to the hospital.

He fought for a while. I know a lot of people who have had and I hate it. Some people can continue to have a long life, for others it’s very short.


Tattoos to remember mum and dad

Dad was in hospital and my brother’s children at that stage were in Perth. My youngest daughter was in Sydney and she was coming home. I said to dad ‘you got to hang on, you got to wait for your grandkids’ so one by one they came and my youngest daughter was the last to arrive. I took her in and said ‘say your goodbyes’. They all said their goodbyes. I only lived 10 minutes around the corner so I took the kids home. I started to do a U-turn to go back to the hospital and then my cousin rings and he goes ‘he passed away’. I really believe some people can hang on until they have seen who they need to and said their goodbyes. He got to see everybody that he wanted and he passed away.

Mum was different. Because mum and dad were soulmates and had that bond, I hoped mum could go on because every week she kept talking about dad and saying how much she misses him. And I would say ‘so do I mum, so do I’. I thought this is going to be hard. My two brothers started to get married and have grandkids and I think that kept mum going. Until she decided she had had enough and she fell asleep. She was 84, and dad was 77.

They gave me and my brother stuff that they never had. Taught me about their village. I went back there three times. They gave us every opportunity to do well. They never said ‘do this’ or ‘I don’t want you to do that’. They would always just say ‘have a go’. I took that on board and passed it onto my two daughters.

I take mum and dad everywhere; they are in tattoos on my body. Instead of going to the cemetery, I do something different.

I had mum’s tattoo done about six months ago. I had been thinking on that one. Dad’s I did about a year or two after he passed. I always liked tattoos and I have my daughter’s names tattooed – Alisha and Sarah.

My youngest daughter has got tattoos and she said ‘get one dad, you have been talking about it for years’ and she took me into her tattoo artist. And then when dad passed a few years later I designed this one. It’s a bricklayer laying bricks and the years he was born and passed away. The ‘d’ in ‘dad’ is shaped into his arm. Mum was a nurse so it’s a nurse tattoo and the dates she was born and passed away. I do want to get binary stars to link mum and dad on my arm. Two orbiting stars with their coordinates.


Blue skies ahead

My girls are Alisha, who will be 34 this year, and Sarah, who will be 31. I have got Sarah living in mum’s house at the moment until we decide what to do with it. Mum and dad helped me buy my first house so I am going to do that for both of my girls. I will buy their first houses once we sell mum’s. I will probably sell my massive house in East Doncaster because I don’t need a massive house with four bedrooms and a swimming pool. I’ll move into a small apartment. I am doing for them what mum and dad did for me. I am going to keep that tradition going. I mean what am I going to do with the money? I want to set them up.

This year, now that mum has passed away, I am just contemplating setting my daughters up and I am slowly going to wind down. I am not going to work full time anymore.

I am an API. An Automotive Parts Interpreter, which means you take your car to the mechanic to get fixed and he rings me up and says ‘I have got this car and I need this part, have you got it’ and I look it up.

When I left school, I didn’t know what I was going to do so I got a job in the motor industry. Back then there was no computers, it was all done by a carding system. Now it’s all computers, you just go tap tap and find out what you need.

My daughter was born with bio talipes, which means her feet were facing 180 degrees backwards and tucked up underneath her knees. At The Royal Children’s Hospital, I saw a lot of kids who were being helped by Make-A-Wish.

I didn’t know about Make-A-Wish when my daughter was getting treated, it wasn’t mentioned at the hospital. Her condition wasn’t life-threatening. She had an operation so they were pointing the right way. It was a process, she was in plaster, then she had special shoes. By 13 months she was crawling with these special shoes and by the time she was going to start school I asked what was going to happen and the doctor said ‘don’t worry about it, let her go and if she has a knock and something happens let me know’.


Rick answers the call

I have seen that many children suffer, kids of people I know. Some just haven’t had a start in life. I feel sorry for them and always wanted to do things for kids.

I joined Make-A-Wish in 2011. Dad passed away in March 2010 and August was around the time of my birthday and I was lying on the couch contemplating life. I was flicking TV channels and there was some kind of country music festival and all of a sudden this young teenager came on talking about life and how she wanted to do this and that and I got intrigued and she said thank you to Make-A-Wish ‘you made my dream come true to come here and sing and meet these music legends’ and all of a sudden it clicked for me, that’s what I wanted to do.

After just the first two or three meetings, Make-A-Wish felt right. They discussed what they are doing, the wish granting. They talked about barbecues for fundraising and I thought ‘I have done so many barbecues at school, I can put my hand up for a shift’. The money they raise then goes to head office. I thought yep if we are getting money and it’s going to be putting a smile on a kid’s face, then I want to do this.

I did have an interest in the fundraising. I went on my very first wish with (volunteer) Lawrie Leeman and another volunteer. We drove all the way out into the country to meet this little boy, who was a Lego fanatic.

As we were driving there Lawrie turned around and said ‘right this is the condition of the boy and this is why we go in groups of three’. He explained the whole process. He said ‘what we have to do is find the child’s wish, not the wish of anyone else in the family’. He said they have had wishes where parents give their wishes not the child’s. He said he would take the lead. It took about 5 of 10 minutes and the child was a bit shy and Lawrie said that’s the way it is, sometimes you have to go two or three times to be clear what the wish will be.

Anyway, with this wish his dad took us in and showed us his son’s LEGO. Every time his son would go into the hospital, he would get injections and he was scared of them so his dad would say ‘if you can tolerate this injection, I’ll buy you a LEGO’ and his dad said to us ‘boy was that a mistake’. As soon as I walked into his room I looked and saw his whole room full of LEGO.

That was the airport, over there was the city, that’s the country town. He and his dad built it all. I just saw the bond between father and son. The things he would do to get his son’s mind off stuff. I thought I wish I knew some of this stuff when I was trying to get Alisha through her operations. I didn’t have any idea. I have passed on all that info Lawrie gave me on my first wish to others doing their first wish.


'Every wish is special'

With the Melbourne Branch, we are all family. We do stuff together, we socialise. Sophie, the president, I have been to her wedding, I have seen her kids get born, their christenings and we go out to dinner with her husband Kosta who is always helping us out with fundraisers. It’s a family thing.

I remember every wish. Every wish is special. A couple stand out more because the two children passed away.

There was a teenager, around the corner from me, who wanted camera equipment. I did photography at school and had my own camera and stand. So, when I did my home visit report, I said to head office ring me if you need to know where to get cameras cheap. So, head office dealt with Ted’s Camera Store, a bloke I know, and they got the camera virtually at cost but he threw in the bag, the tripod and a few other bits and pieces. I picked it up, wrapped it and visited the home because they didn’t want to do anything too big.

When I arrived, they were packing up to go back home, because they were from the country. Reading between the lines, I knew the girl was very sick. I think she had come to the end of her treatment and there was nothing else that could be done. But we don’t actually ask. I just said ‘here’s the camera’ and I showed her a few tricks that I have learnt. We did it all, gave her everything she needed and then went away. And I saw the father two weeks later and he kind of took that deep breath and as soon as he took that deep breath, I thought to myself she’s passed away. He said ‘yeah she’s passed away’ and ‘that’s why we went back home because she wanted to be at home’. I went home and had a bit of a cry but then I stopped and was thinking that we at Make-A-Wish did this quickly because we had to and she got to have 9 days with her camera.

I thought, bugger she’s gone but reflecting on it at least she had 9 days with something that she loved. That’s what Make-A-Wish is great. When things are urgent, Make-A-Wish head office jumps on it.


Car wish will never be forgotten

There was a little boy who wanted to go in a limo and eat at Burwood Maccas. And his wish was to go to Albert Park to meet Lightning McQueen from Toy Story. Head office new somebody with the Lightning McQueen car. That was an urgent wish and was done very quickly. He drove around the Albert Park racetrack in the car. While he was doing that, we set up an area for his friends and they had a little picnic.

There was Lightning McQueen cupcakes. The father and I were just talking about stuff and he just stopped dead in his tracks and took a deep breath. And I went straight to in my mind ‘he’s going to tell me something bad’. He turned around and said ‘My son hasn’t got long to live. I really, really, really thank you guys, thank Make-A-Wish, for making this come true’. He said ‘I can’t tell you how much of a smile’s been put on my son’s face, my wife’s face, my face to see him doing this’ and then he walked away. And I turned around and said ‘thank you, I really appreciate it from the bottom of my heart. I don’t know what you are going through, but if he’s got a big smile on his face then that’s great’ and that was it. He passed away not long after. Those wishes shock you, hurt you but they also spur you on to get to the next one.

I am in my 12th year as a volunteer. Make-A-Wish has given me more confidence and helped me to better myself.

I have had family deaths around me. My father, my mother, my uncles. But if I have a short life, my attitude is that I will have fun. We don’t wait for birthdays, Christmas or anything special to celebrate. My daughter wanted to go overseas. Working in Canada or America for two or three years. She would work the snowfields. I said ‘fine, go. Enjoy life’.

I see wish kids, many of them 5 to 13, who haven’t even started their lives and see how they perceive life and enjoy themselves. They have got this massive life-threatening disease and here I am whingeing about little things.

Just hearing the story from the parents, how the wish child is going through life and how they are coping. Nothing stops them. And I get so much energy from these kids and families.

They invite you to their homes, they have got biscuits and a spread. And you’re thinking, you don’t have to go to all this trouble. But that’s just their way of saying thank you for coming all the way out to their homes. They keep saying thank you but we say ‘no, we are here because this is what we love to do’.


Rick's 'second family' always there for him

I fondly remember the little girl who wanted to meet a unicorn and see it fly. It was at the Melbourne Arts Centre; they needed helpers to bring coffees over. We gave people coffees as they walked in and then later, we walked around giving people food. That was huge. They got the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. They thought outside the square.

Then someone knew people at RMIT that do things on computers, so they could project the unicorn. A baker got involved, we had to have an edible horn. The feeling there out of 10 was 100. I got there about 5pm and it didn’t finish till 10pm but it didn’t seem like five hours. Just to see her face when they did the projection and then when she met the unicorn, she was dolled up in her little tutu. We did a guard of honour so people didn’t encroach on her meeting with the unicorn. And to see her face, she saw a unicorn. The looks on their faces, their facial expressions, and the parents reactions. You don’t forget them.

Then there's Bronte, a puppy wish with links to America. I was involved in it. (Volunteer) Chris found a Bugs Bunny impersonator in the US to do messages for Bronte. I bought a magnet board to give her in anticipation. Photos of the dog she wanted and glued them to magnets for the board. So, when it was 10 days, 9 days etc she could update the board. There was a countdown.

It was a week after mum died that we did Bronte’s wish. Chris rang me and said ‘sorry about your mum, take some time’ and I said ‘I need a distraction, maybe I will just take a couple of days off but keep me updated with what’s happening’. I took a step back but was still involved. When the presentation was happening, it was four days after I buried mum. Chris said not to worry about coming but I said ‘Chris I have laid my mum to rest and one thing mum and dad told me was that life goes on’. I told him that I wanted to move on.

Make-A-Wish was so supportive. Six months prior I lost my three good friends and Chris and Sophie were checking up on me, and then there was a knock on the door from Chris and he says ‘I heard about it’ and gave me a care pack from Make-A-Wish Melbourne head office. This is my second family. They keep me going.

Rick has been proudly volunteering since 2011