Behind The Wish - Sophia Vlamis

Meet Sophia Vlamis - an amazing Make-A-Wish volunteer of 12 years.

Dealing with the challenges of growing up in a small town, Sophia discovered how people can achieve great things if they work together.

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


Dad leads the way

My Dad came to Australia from Greece, literally with 20 dollars in his pocket. He was one of nine children and the family were goat farmers. They used to pick olives and walk 20kms to sell them.

He came to Australia with the dream of doing something for his family. He was by himself and just 18. He worked construction, on trucks, cleaning, the fruit and vegetable markets and doing English lessons at night.

The money he would make he would send to his family in Greece.

When he was able to establish himself enough, he brought two younger brothers over. And two cousins over. He paid for them to come here. He is an incredible man.

I was born in Melbourne, in Box Hill, but was raised for six years in Greece. My parents were typical migrants, they came with nothing and had fish and chip shops in Yea.

My uncles owned fish and chip shops and a petrol station in Yea. But my dad wanted to go back to Greece so he rented out the buildings and the first four kids – I am one of 7 – went back to Greece.

We spent six years and then when we returned to Australia, there I was with no English because I was a baby when I left.

My siblings had spoken English before they left, but I hadn’t. I had to learn very quickly in a small country town how to speak English. I was in Grade 6 and it took about six months to learn English.

My older siblings got discriminated against, name-calling. But the time I had come along we didn’t get it that bad. It wasn’t as bad as my older siblings. They paved the way.

By our time people accepted there were people from different nationalities. They knew my parents and our family.

Back then there were no other cultures in a small country town. There was just the Greeks and they all knew us. We grew up in Yea playing lots of sport, the Yea Tigers football netball club.

I was school captain, house captain, and I really loved helping people out. We did fundraising barbecues. We went to RSLs and nursing homes.

That’s where my love of volunteering started. Because we came from a small town of 2500 we understood the value of helping people.

When we returned to Australia, we went back to the fish and chip shop. Dad had rented it out when we were in Greece.

My dad was very stubborn, didn’t like to retire and he didn’t like being in Greece for six years and doing nothing. It was interesting growing up in a fish and chip shop. The downside was our parents worked 24/7 but we grew up with a lot of responsibility.

I helped out looking after my younger siblings and we all worked in the shop.


'Dad is here, but he's not'

I moved to Melbourne because I got into performing arts/law at Monash University. My parents bought a place here just so I could study.

My parents only recently sold the shop because my dad got diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease. He is 76. Up to age 70 he was working day in, day out he had that mentality. Once he got the diagnosis we had to sell up.

We got the diagnosis in 2016 and sold the shop in 2017.

We are still active in Yea; my brother has a farm and we have properties there but I moved in 2008 because I got into university and the commute was too hard.

I got my law and performing arts degree and then I did my grad dip in legal practice and Masters in property and communication law. I specialise in entertainment, copyright, trademarks, sports law, defamation, media law.

Dad always said ‘get an education’ because they didn’t get that. They grew up in villages. He wanted his children to do something with their lives.

Growing up in a small country town you have a sense of community and that’s what I really value. Do things for your community, that’s what was instilled in us.

It’s hard to see Dad now. He was in transitional care and recently in hospital for three months. We brought him home in the hope of keeping him for as long as possible.

We have carers. It’s hard going when you say ‘hey dad’ and he doesn’t know who you are. He used to love singing and dancing and he used to be in his shop singing.

During the Black Saturday fires, he opened the shop and was giving away free pizzas. He didn’t have to do that. Everyone just loved it.

Everywhere around Yea was burning and he was giving away pizzas and chips. So, seeing him now … you do lose them. They are different people. He is still there but he’s not and that’s the worst part.

The worst of it is that they worked so hard in the shop. When they sold the shop there was an article in the local paper, Yea Chronicle.

And the local parliamentarian made a speech in parliament about him. We were hoping he would spend the next 20 years enjoying himself and his grandchildren. That’s the hardest part is, he’s not able to enjoy himself.


Commitment to Make-A-Wish grows

I have children, a two-year-old and a eight month old. Anastasia and Christina. They are named after my mum and my husband’s mum. That’s what Greeks do. There’s a lot of activities, the 2 and half year old is very clever. She is well advanced for her age. Her dad is smart, he has a PhD.

Since becoming a mother, I appreciate Make-A-Wish more.

This is my 12th year and I appreciate it more now. I have always loved Make-A-Wish, I have a massive passion for it but I think now I appreciate what we do more because I have kids.

Now when I speak to a family, knowing what they are going through and how hard it would be if you have a child with cancer or waiting for a transplant or whatever, I now know how hard it would be.

I have more empathy because I have two daughters and one of them went to hospital with RSV and she was really sick for a couple of days so I could imagine what parents go through. My empathy levels have increased.

Having my own kids, it makes me want to do more for Make-A-Wish. I feel I want to do even more for the families.

I have had massive drive but I want to help more, fundraise more. If my kids were sick like that, I would want to do everything in my power to give them hope and joy.

I did a Zoom meeting recently with a wish family and the child was a similar age to Anastasia and Anastasia was in the background and this little girl started saying what she wanted and I am saying all this stuff and the mum says ‘you have a daughter don’t you’ and I said ‘yes I do’.

It was hard emotionally because she was like my daughter but she has terminal cancer and the family are really struggling and it’s like I just couldn’t imagine going through that.

It does hit home harder but it makes me want to do better.

Wish parents have so much strength and courage. It’s courage underlined 100 times because you don’t expect a child to have cancer or heart problems and things like that, but they have this positivity and positive outlook.

What makes these parents so courageous is that they still smile.

On the Wish call, when we check-in, they still smile, they can still laugh and really appreciate life. If my child was seriously ill, I would be hysterical, but these parents become positive because they must fight for their kids.

Even if it’s a simple wish – say a laptop – the parents really appreciate it. I always look at the parents when their child is being interviewed by us, just watching their facial expressions, and I always see them smile.

They are just so thankful because the wish is bringing their whole family happiness.


Seeing the power of the wish

We had a girl 15 or 16 years old with cancer who had a Justin Bieber wish. Her hair had fallen out and she wanted to meet Justin Bieber. He was coming to town but we said that it might not happen but we would try to do it.

We couldn’t promise it. We said ‘you might be able to get a ticket if we can’t organise a meeting’. So, we rang the mum when we had confirmation of the meet and greet and said ‘let’s surprise her’.

So we threw around ideas to build up the anticipation and one of the ideas that came up at that branch meeting was to get a cardboard cut-out of Justin Bieber.

So we told the mum the wish was approved and we planned it with the mum: we were hiding in the bushes outside their house and rang the doorbell and had the cardboard cut-out with speech bubbles saying ‘I can’t wait to meet you, you are going to be my VIP guest’.

The wish girl opened the front door and she saw this massive smouldering cardboard cut-out of Justin Bieber with pretend tickets and she was excited.

The wish itself was great - she got a limo, got to meet him, lanyards, hair and make-up and everything – but the anticipation was just as good. With some children’s charities the volunteers don’t get involved with the anticipation.

As a branch, you’re there from the start. It’s not just give them a puppy and the wish is done. The wish is cumulation of a lot of small anticipation events. It’s so powerful because it’s a journey.

One of my very first wishes, with volunteer Laurie, the child was on dialysis and waiting for a transplant. She wanted to go to Bali. She said ‘now I have something to look forward to while I wait for my transplant’.

The presentation was at Yarra Valley and Laurie, who was president at the time, turned around and said to me ‘that’s why we do Make-A-Wish’. And I was like ‘mate, you got me’. She had something to look forward to.

And that wish was what made me stay. I was 18 years old and I was sold.

My parents had a little boy called Kosta but he died at 11 months of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. So, I have always wanted to help kids. I remember seeing something on the news about Make-A-Wish and I thought this is what I wanted to do so I put in an application and the rest is history.

I was 11 years old when Kosta passed so I took it really hard. You don’t why it happens. So that’s why I am really close with my other younger siblings, I am a bit of a mum figure to them.

My mum lights a candle for Kosta every time his anniversary comes around.


Giving sunshine when there are clouds overhead

Every time you go on a wish, you get vindicated that you’re doing the right thing because you see the smiles on their faces and it makes it worth it every time.

I love my career, but what I do with Make-A-Wish is so much more rewarding.

I love puppy wishes because I am a huge cavoodle fan. But if I am on the wish, I want to keep the dog!

I also love the shopping spree wishes. This young girl wanted to go on a shopping spree wish. And it’s fun, because you go with them to the department store and you can see them say ‘I can get this’ and ‘I can get that’. It’s so nice to be able to treat them to a whole day of shopping.

There was a wish with a girl called Sophie who lived just down the road. She had terminal cancer and she wanted to be a photographer when she’s older.

She wanted a camera so we got her this amazing camera. She wanted to spend the remaining weeks and months of her life taking photos.

When she passed away her mum rang me and said even though she passed away the last couple of months were probably the best of her last few years because she had that camera and she was taking photos.

It made her so happy to take photos and it made the last few months of her life very special.

And her mum said they have those photos for the rest of their lives.

You do get invested in it, the families become friends basically – you go back and forth with them - and you do feel the loss. It was mixed emotions. You feel happy to be a part of it but you’re devastated to lose this bright teenager.

There are times after seeing a wish family where you have cried and been upset in your car. But I try to say to myself ‘we are doing something positive’.

If I do get too emotional, I won’t be able to do the best job. I need to be at my best capacity to give the wish family everything.

Make-A-Wish puts my life in perspective. When you speak to a wish family it immediately grounds you, you think ‘there’s a lot more worse things in life than whatever is going on in my life’. I might complain about my baby waking up and I am exhausted but then you think I have two healthy bubs and that’s all I can ask for.

Before you scream at the world, Make-A-Wish reminds you there’s a lot worse things happening.

It would feel really empty not being able to help families out. I do come from a background of helping people.

When Anastasia was born in COVID lockdown and when I was released from the hospital, I was meant to host the trivia night for our branch but obviously I had just had a baby a couple of days before.

It was online and I still joined online with the baby. I couldn’t host because I was breastfeeding so (fellow volunteer) Sam hosted. I did the welcome speech and then turned my camera off.


Sophia's desire to fundraise

I have made some lifelong friends. We have a social group from Make-A-Wish.

What makes Melbourne Branch so good is that you do have those long-serving volunteers who have been there 10-plus years and those people, after all those years, haven’t lost their passion. Laurie and Robyn have moved to Paynesvile but they still do three events a year and raise thousands of dollars.

Our branch has suffered post-COVID, and we don’t have the numbers and we don’t have the engagement. It’s basically the 10 people who are long-termers but we are still trying to do things.

That’s what makes the branch special.

We have done gala balls; we have done a lot of trivia nights. During lockdown we tried to figure how to fundraise and we decided to do online trivia. My brother’s work did online trivia during COVID and that gave me the idea. I think we are the only branch who did it during COVID. It was a big hit. We got 90 people.

I was sitting down just before giving birth and did all the PowerPoint slides and researched all the questions. We raised nearly $1000 for one.

We even had people from Yea, people know our family – old teachers etc. People got enthusiastic. Lots of people messaged after saying it was great and we should do it again so we did.

We are doing street appeals at the moment. Street appeals raise a lot of money but you don’t need a lot of manpower. We had a street appeal in May. We should push them even more. We did two last year. The first raised $2000 and the second $1800.

The whole family helped with one last year. Shaking tins and we thought people don’t have cash – although they actually do – and we got some barcodes so people can use their cards.

We will have our family and all our partners helping with the next one.

Last year we ran a Bunnings barbecue and raised $1600. That was a good day.

I would love to do a charity run. My husband and I are both runners. I have a friend who does his own charity for war-torn kids, a fun run and they do two laps of the Botanical Gardens tan and they raise about $20,000.

When things settle down at home with my kids, I want to do a fun run for Make-A-Wish. It’ll be a good day.

We are lucky to be involved. It’s an organisation that gives us as much as we give them. It makes you feel good.

Sophia has been proudly volunteering since 2011