The Rainbow Connection, based in Rochester, has existed in some capacity since 1980.
In May of that year, L. Brooks Patterson’s friend, Ron Dobson, was traveling on his private plane with his wife, Janet, and their two children, Tim and Jennifer, to a wedding. A mechanical failure caused the plane to crash, and Ron and the two kids were killed in the accident. Janet was critically injured.
Patterson wanted to do something to pay tribute to his friend’s children, so he started the Dobson Golf Outing that August, a memorial golf outing to raise scholarship funds in honor of Tim and Jennifer. After several successful years of the golf outing, participants encouraged Patterson to do something more than a scholarship program. So in 1985, The Rainbow Connection was formed, a wish-granting organization for Michigan children with life-threatening medical conditions.
Since then the organization has granted over 3,400 wishes, with 172 wishes granted last year alone. There is no waitlist for the children.
“Whenever the child is ready and gets medical clearance, they go on their trip,” says Executive Director George Miller. “There is no waiting for funding because for some of these kids, unfortunately, time is of the essence.”
Though Miller is new to the position, having just celebrated his one-year anniversary with the organization, he is intimately familiar with its work. In 2004, his daughter Mandy contracted a very rare form of childhood cancer and was the recipient of a Rainbow Connection wish in 2005.
She didn’t pick Disney World, which is the “wish of wishes” for most kids; instead, she wanted to have a horse leased for her.
“None of us knew she was even interested in horses,” Miller recalls. “Mack [the horse] was an unbelievable spark of goodwill and therapy throughout her treatment. On days that were rough for her, an hour or even five minutes with Mack changed her attitude.”
Having gone through this experience of taking care of a sick child himself, Miller knows first-hand how difficult such experiences are for families.
“When families are going through that kind of life-changing, life-altering situation, it’s tough on them,” he says. “They might become a single-income family as one parent leaves work for the full-time care of the child, and that’s tough on two-income families that depend on that second income, with the constant trips to hospitals and the expense of the food, gas, parking, [and sometimes overnight lodging] associated with them. Now imagine what you go through as a single parent.”
It is a devastating experience for anyone to go through, which is why The Rainbow Connection stands by the families before, during, and after the wishes are granted. If a family runs into a particular hardship – they haven’t been able to pay their electric bill in three months, or their refrigerator stopped working and they need it to keep the child’s medication refrigerated – The Rainbow Connection has a vast network of partner organizations and businesses they are able to reach out to and act as advocates on behalf of the family to work something out so they have everything they need to continue caring for the child. Wish-granting is, really, just one piece of what they do.
But the wish-granting is also the highlight – making dreams come true for children going through a very difficult ordeal…and one they might not survive.
Any child with a physician’s documentation of a life-threatening medical condition is eligible, and the only time they will ever have to wait on a wish is if they’re waiting for a particular celebrity to be at a certain place at a certain time. Otherwise, they are able to go whenever they want, whenever they are ready.
With Disney World being the most popular wish, The Rainbow Connection has developed a partnership with the Florida-based organization Give Kids the World Village, a nonprofit “storybook” resort in Kissimmee where children with life-threatening illnesses and their families are treated to weeklong vacations, totally free to them. Families get free tickets to Disney World, Universal Studios, and several other parks, and stay at the organization’s themed resort with multiple attractions of its own.
Every wish fulfilled by The Rainbow Connection includes all expenses paid travel for the child and his or her whole immediate family (parents and siblings), and there is no such thing as a wish too expensive. But, Miller says, he actually has the cost of each trip down to $5,000 per family, including a recent trip for a child and her mother (without the other family members, per the family’s request) to New Zealand. “With our travel agent we can usually make any wish come true within that range,” he says.
They also recently sent a young man and his family to Alaska for a fishing trip, and other wishes in the past have included meeting singer-songwriter Ed Sheeran and professional basketball player Steph Curry. All of this is possible through the connections the organization has made over the years. But some kids don’t want a whole trip or to meet a celebrity – one young lady recently just wanted to go on a shopping spree with her friends.
The work of The Rainbow Connection is supported by an incredible network of donors and sponsors, including a $1 million private donation in 1998 that allowed the organization to purchase the home it is located in with the rest put into an endowment.
The Rainbow Connection has four major events each year that are crucial to its fundraising efforts: their premier black tie event, the Dream Makers Ball, held each year in April; the two-city Walk for Kids being held on June 10 and, for the first time ever, a third event held in conjunction with the Brooksie Way on September 23; the 38th annual Dobson Golf Outing, how it all started, on July 23; and the Celebration of Dreams on November 18.
In addition to those major annual events, there are a number of other events organized by community members to benefit The Rainbow Connection, and Miller says he has two “angel” families – the Welker family and the Eschbasch family – who do a lot of community organization and have been key sponsors for many events. “They really grabbed onto the mission and do not let go,” he says.
Donations are always accepted through their website as well.
Miller has also made it a point to lead some revenue generation efforts so that the organization can be more self-sustaining, so last year he implemented The Rainbow Connection’s first car donation program.
“I’ve been adamant that we can’t solely rely on the goodwill of other people,” he explains. “We need to do some things ourselves for revenue generation.”
He praises his staff of nine for all of their hard work and long-time commitment (three employees have been with the organization for nearly two decades) and what they have been able to do with limited resources. He also praises the 21-member Board of Directors, who are very involved and work hard to build connections to facilitate wish-granting and raise funds. One of those board members happens to be Janet Dobson – now Janet Dobson Vernier.
To find out more about The Rainbow Connection, visit their website at https://www.rainbowconnection.org, where you can also find more details about upcoming events and make a donation to support their work.