Heather Joseph, from Make-A-Wish Metro New York, talks about how volunteers at the heart of their operation connect with New York’s diverse community.
The Make-A-Wish mission is well-known in America. For over 30 years, the Make-A-Wish Foundation has been granting the wishes of children with life-threatening medical conditions. Throughout the country, local chapters of Make-A-Wish have touched the lives of hundreds of children who come from different backgrounds and speak different languages.
Heather Joseph is the Manager of Volunteer Resources at Make-A-Wish Metro New York and Western New York. She helps connect wish kids and their families with the volunteers who interview each child to discover the child’s wish and then help with the delivery of the wish. We asked her to tell us more about the volunteers she works with and the diverse communities those volunteers interact with in New York.
How do volunteers help your organization accomplish its mission?
What most people don’t know about Make-A-Wish is that the volunteers are the ones who actually interview the kids. I primarily have the opportunity to work with our office volunteers and our wish-granting volunteers. Our wish-granting volunteers make up the largest number of volunteers that we use within the organization. It’s their job to interview and follow up with the wish kids. Then the Make-A-Wish wish granting staff works on the planning and logistics to fulfill wishes.
How do the volunteers help wish kids discover what their wishes are?
We grant wishes in four categories: I wish to have; I wish to go; I wish to meet; and I wish to be. The volunteers help the kids think about what each wish entails and really get to the heart, to the meat of why a child wants that as their wish. Make-A-Wish grants one wish in a lifetime, and we try to make sure it’s super special for every single child.
New York is one of the most diverse cities in the world. What cultures and languages have you and your volunteers in New York interacted with through your work?
We come across families that speak all sorts of languages. I think at last count we’d come across around 100 languages spoken by different families. Other than English, the primary languages that our families speak are Spanish, Mandarin, Cantonese, and Arabic, but in my two years of working with the organization, I’ve come across families that speak different languages from Southeast Asia, French Creole, French dialects from African countries, Polish, and Hindi.
What kind of obstacles does living in a diverse metropolis like New York pose for the volunteers who work with your organization?
Sometimes families that speak languages other than English have to wait longer to be interviewed by a volunteer. We like to have volunteers whose primarily languages are the same as the family’s, but that’s not always possible. I have a basic understanding of Spanish, but if we have a Spanish speaking family, someone like me may be hesitant to sign up to interview that family. But those volunteers can use Certified Language’s interpretation services, which is a resource we encourage all of our volunteers to use.
Is there a certain perspective or awareness that people considering volunteering with Make-A-Wish should have?
We encourage our volunteers to sign up to take wishes from kids whose families share the same cultural background and language as the volunteer. But we also ask volunteers who are not familiar with additional languages to take on the wishes of a kid no matter the child’s linguistic background. A wish kid waiting to be interviewed is exactly that regardless of the language they speak.
Have you ever witnessed the perspective of any of your volunteers change after working with a family from another culture or that speaks another language?
Absolutely, I think a lot of our volunteers are intimidated at first by the idea of working with someone whose first language is not English. We did an in-person session a while ago about using the Certified Languages interpreter service. One volunteer reached out to us afterward, and said he was not as afraid to take a wish and interview a wish child who speaks another language because now he knows that there is someone who can help him speak to the kid and the family. Now, when we send out our weekly wish assignment email, this volunteer will be one of the first gentlemen to sign up and take a family whose first language is not English. More volunteers are open to take these wishes that they may not have normally taken now that they know they have a tool that they can turn to.
What is the most important knowledge or insight an interpreter can have when working with your organization?
I think it’s being very mindful that this can be a situation that can be a little bit stressful for a family. They are dealing with a child who has an illness, and they are trying to figure out how to manage their own expectations of what that looks like and what that means. So I think it’s important for interpreters, like our volunteers, to remember to maintain enthusiasm throughout the process.