Behind The Wish - Wendy Upasena

Meet Wendy Upasena - an outstanding Make-A-Wish volunteer of 7 years.

Wendy is inspired by her fellow Melbourne Branch members and their dedication to finding the right wishes for sick children.

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


Searching for a new network of friends

I have been with Make-A-Wish for the last six years. I came to Australia from Sri Lanka with my husband in 2016. It’s a beautiful country and we had all the social networks there, family and friends.

And all of a sudden, you find yourself in Australia, a country without anyone essentially.

You’ve uprooted yourself and you’re in a different country with a different culture and climate. I came from a very tropical, sunny and humid place to a very dry place.

There was nothing about Sri Lanka I was unhappy about but the job I was doing there I wasn’t happy with. I felt I was putting in long hours without getting much in return.

My husband was encouraging me to change my job.

We knew a couple of friends in Australia, but not near Melbourne. We heard the life here is much less complicated. We love it, it’s truly multicultural.

We came in the middle of February. Probably the best time to come to Melbourne! We felt a little lost. It took us a while to settle in.

And all of a sudden you settle in but you look around and think there’s still something missing. That’s a social circle, a social network.

I needed this connection with the community. To survive, actually.

Apart from office colleagues, I didn’t have a support network. There was the Sri Lankan community but it’s not the same. Essentially, I had to start everything from scratch.

You do feel so alone and you only have your better half to speak with. You don’t have anyone to help broaden your horizons. It was the same every day, going to work then coming home.

There was nothing else in my life.

I am introverted and don’t go out much. It’s very difficult for me to make friends.

So, I found myself applying to join Make-A-Wish. I applied in October and I went to a meeting in January the next year.

I had gone through the website and seen some amazing wishes. The unicorn flying through the sky wish, that was something that touched my heart. Seeing that girl’s smile.

The one was one of the wishes I felt drawn to.

After joining you quickly felt like you were part of the core the organisation. Which I found incredible.

You are a cog in that bigger wheel, which is an amazing feeling. You are making a change. You are turning things around, even though you’re not paid or anything.

You are giving away your time but you can see the impact. That is something really special for me.


Passionate volunteers inspire others

I work as a project engineer. I work for a supplier in the oil and gas industry. My work is quite technical and, in a sense, boring.

There are a lot of documents, standards and tiny details. At work, we do operate as a team but it’s half-technical but with Make-A-Wish you’re 100pc connecting with people.

You’re connecting with other volunteers and a range of people at head office, as well as the wish families. It’s 100pc connection that in your daily life you’re maybe not experiencing. That’s where some of the motivation comes from.

Even today, after many years, I am 100pc sure this is for me. It is a huge part of me. It is not all of me but it is a huge part of me.

What has kept me going is the volunteers in the Branch. The passion they show, I couldn’t bring myself to leave.

It’s interesting, you’re really busy with work and you have other things going on but you still find time to contribute to Make-A-Wish.

That’s all because of the volunteers’ passion. Even the passion I sometimes see from the team in the head office.

I have met many incredible team members from head office and I see their genuine passion. They are very gentle the way they deal with us, the volunteers.

Especially the Wish Design team but all the teams are very inspirational and we always learn something from them. This passion is contagious.

When you see someone so passionate about something, you have no choice but to really follow their lead.

In the Branch there’s a lot of experienced volunteers sharing their experiences.

That’s also motivated me to keep going. And now when I see the new volunteers coming in, I feel like I should be giving back the energy I received when I was starting out. It’s like a pay it forward situation.


'Fundraising is an essential part of Make-A-Wish'

I find fundraising is more fun, but wishes are also fun in a way. Wishes don’t come along as much as the fundraising. I do have a little bit of a marketing background so I suppose that’s why I enjoy fundraising. I enjoy trying to find out what motivates people to donate. Finding out what we can do for them.

I think fundraising is an essential part of Make-A-Wish. It’s quite fun too, when you think about the projects you do to bring in money.

There’s a couple I have done. I always find street appeals fascinating because you get to talk to people for a couple of seconds when they are waiting at traffic lights.

That’s very challenging but also a lot of fun. I was also part of a foam run fundraiser. It’s kind of an obstacle course and I was one of the volunteers doing the bag checks. That was quite fun.

Every wish is very important. My first wish is special to me. It was a girl called Stephanie and she wanted to go to a BTS concert.

I went with Bella, a very experienced volunteer. We met up before in her car and we went and knocked on the door and went inside and all of a sudden you see Stephanie coming into the living room with a bald head because of the chemotherapy she was receiving.

It seemed like she wasn’t feeling well, but her eyes sparkled when she talked about the wish, how much she wanted to go to the concert. It was an urgent wish and was happening in three weeks.

We just had to rush everything to make it happen.

I was so amazed how the Wish Team at head office put everything together. Stephanie was without hair at that time and not that well, but she and her family were so happy to talk to us.

The funny thing is Bella’s daughter was a K-pop fan and felt like she should contribute. She actually made a really nice gift pack for Stephanie during the wish anticipation phase.

Stephanie stayed close to the concert in a hotel, had her hair and make-up done. She had a wig and she felt really feminine. I loved seeing how elated she was to be at the concert. For Stephanie it was her lifelong dream come true.

The wish was picked up by SBS and they interviewed Stephanie.

She was probably a little girl when we met and all of a sudden you see in the video, she is really mature looking and feminine looking.

I felt wow we have made such an impact on her. That’s the wish which made me think, ‘yes I want to do this more’.


Cycling through ideas to find the right wish

There’s a wish that was going for two and a half years purely because of COVID.

People usually think the Wish Journey is pretty straightforward. You meet the family and the wish kid and they have their most cherished wish in their mind. But most often they don’t.

They are so confused, as we are. Not everyone has a lifelong wish especially when you are a kid.

They have so many dreams and so many interests. We met this particular wish kid, and their gorgeous family. I kept on asking the question about what he wished for but he had hundreds of interests.

So, there were suggestions like ‘how about a holiday’ or a ‘meet and greet with a famous video gamer’ and we were really scratching our heads.

He liked everything equally. And he’s only 8. We went there for a second time; we went there for a third time and then COVID happened and we couldn’t do any home visits.

Then his mum would say ‘now he’s into swimming’ and ‘now he’s into cycling’.

All of a sudden, in the midst of the harsh lockdowns in Melbourne, we had almost given up but his mum messaged us and said ‘he would like a bicycle’.

So out of all the ideas, he picked a bicycle. We were really happy. The Wish Team decided to make it happen very quickly.

Those type of wishes are easy to grant. We later received a picture of him with his bike and after almost two and half years since we first met him, I didn’t recognise him at first. He’s now 10 or 11 years old, it’s incredible to see.

He has grown up so much. It was really special to see how happy he was.

He’s riding his bicycle to school, and that’s incredible because there’s a lot of hills where they live. It’s not an easy feat to ride to school.

I often reminisce with other volunteers about this wish because it was so hard to figure out what he wanted and we got there in the end.


Joining forces to deliver a cherished wish

I came to Make-A-Wish for connection, to be part of the community and to be part of the country I live in.

And Make-A-Wish has done that for me, you meet this amazing group of volunteers and you meet their friends and families through fundraising events.

And sometimes you are one-on-one with a volunteer on a wish, working out what you’re going to do and what the wish kid wants.

You always feel like if you are doing something, you can rely on the other volunteers to help. If you are doing a wish and need ideas, you can throw it out there and get some amazing ideas back.

When a wish happens you have a sense of achievement, and that’s something you don’t get in the real world.

We are part of a bigger team; we are a part of something. For an immigrant, that is pretty crucial.

Make-A-Wish is a place where everyone is so passionate about the cause. Right from the CEO to the volunteers to the wish families.

I had the pleasure of meeting Sally Bateman (CEO) a couple of times and I have seen how passionate she is.

What we are doing is life-changing for the wish families. If that’s what you would like to do, you should jump into Make-A-Wish.

From every corner, the organisation is passionate. I have seen it first-hand.

What we do is grant wishes for kids with life-threatening illnesses but what you put in you get back a thousand-fold.

A child having their cherished wish makes a world of difference to them.

It impacts the wish family, the extended family and sometimes the neighbourhood. When all of a sudden you deliver this special wish, you feel an entire community lights up.

Wendy has been proudly volunteering since 2016