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Make-A-Wish founder recalls 1st wish

The Associated Press

Frank Shankwitz was a DPS officer in 1980 when he heard about a dying boy, 7, who wanted to be a motorcycle cop.

The Associated Press

PRESCOTT – When Frank Shankwitz saw the smile he helped bring to 7-year-old Chris Greicius’ face by turning him into a minipatrol officer for a couple of days, he wanted to help children all over the world light up the same way – and that’s exactly what he did.

Now, nearly 24 years later, Shankwitz has made the dreams of more than 120,000 children come true through his worldwide organization, the Make-A-Wish Foundation.

Shankwitz grew up in Prescott, and after retiring from the Department of Public Safety in Phoenix after 31 years, he is back in Prescott.

Shankwitz met Chris in 1980 when a U.S. Customs agent told the DPS about the boy “and his dream to be just like ‘Ponch’ and ‘Jon’ from ‘CHiPs,’ ” a popular TV show.

Chris was dying of leukemia and had only a few weeks left to live, Shankwitz said. An officer paid a surprise visit to the boy’s home and flew him to their main headquarters in a helicopter.

“When Chris got off the helicopter, I was expecting a very sick boy,” Shankwitz recalls. “Instead, this little guy hopped out and he was a little bundle of energy.”

Shankwitz put the little boy on his motorcycle, and he immediately began poking buttons and was fascinated with the lights and sirens.

When Shankwitz offered to take him for a ride on the bike, Chris looked terrified and said he was scared to ride on a motorcycle because “motorcycles don’t have doors. Helicopters do.”

Shankwitz added, “You can see how this kid just grabbed at us.”

Chris was outfitted with a trooper hat, a badge and a certificate. Shankwitz said the event made Chris so happy that “he went home that night instead of back to the hospital.”

The next day the officers came to Chris’ home to present him with a little uniform, and “he was thrilled to death.”

The only thing missing was a set of wings, which Shankwitz said exhibits a specialty rank for motorcycle officers.

Shankwitz explained to Chris that officers must go through a special training to obtain the wings, so they set up a little obstacle course in his home, and he rode through it on the battery-operated motorcycle Chris’ mother bought him to ride in place of a wheelchair.

He passed the course. Shankwitz ordered the wings for Chris and found out the next day he had only 24 to 48 hours left to live.

When he got the wings, Shankwitz took them to the hospital where Chris was in a coma. He had hung up his uniform next to the bed, so Shankwitz pinned the wings to it.

“Just as I did that, he came out of the coma. He saw the uniform and smiled and he just lit up the room,” Shankwitz said. “He asked, ‘Am I officially a motorcycle cop now?’ ”

Chris died the next day, and Shankwitz said, “I hope his wings carried him to heaven.”

Shankwitz went to the funeral in Illinois and helped conduct a “full police funeral. We buried him with honors in uniform, and presented a flag to his mother.”

On his way home, Shankwitz said he “thought about how happy Chris was and how his wish had helped take away the pain.”

“I thought, ‘If I can do this for one child, why couldn’t I do it for children all over the world?’ ”

He contacted Chris’ mother about the idea, and “she said, ‘Let’s do it.’ ”

Shankwitz knew the right people to talk with, and his Make-A-Wish Foundation became official in 1980. There are now 70 chapters in the United States, and 27 internationally. They have granted more than 120,000 wishes worldwide to children with illnesses.

Shankwitz, who graduated from Prescott High School in 1961, said several of his classmates have become active in his organization by becoming volunteers or joining the board of directors.

The Northern Arizona Make-A-Wish Foundation grants more than 50 wishes a year, he said.

The concept of the Make-A-Wish Foundation has changed over the years from helping terminally ill children to helping children with life-threatening diseases because “we’re getting more and more children surviving these illnesses by the grace of God and modern medicine.”

There are four categories of wishes a sick child can choose from, and they fill in the blanks. These include: “I want to be …”, “I want to see …”, “I want to have …”, and “I want to meet …”

Families can go with their child on trips because “the whole family has been through the trauma the child goes through. They all need this little break,” Shankwitz said.

“I’ve seen these kids go through so much suffering at such a young age,” he added. “They don’t understand their pain or suffering. These children forget about their pain (when their wishes come true) because they’re thinking about what they’ll be doing or seeing.”

Shankwitz is on the board of directors for the northern Arizona chapter. He is also a wish ambassador, which means he travels around the world giving motivational talks.

He is also starting another organization called “After The Wish,” which will help the families of wish children financially and educationally.

While Shankwitz has given his heart to so many children all over the world, he said they have given him just as much in return.

“These kids are so strong,” he said. “Now that there are so many children surviving their illnesses, I get to meet them and hear all about their wishes, and they just light up.

“That gets you right in the heart.”

PHOTO CAPTION: The Associated Press

Frank Shankwitz has 24 years of memories from bringing joy to children with life-threatening illnesses.

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