Making Dance Wishes Come True

Dance teachers give of themselves to children in need

By Debbie Werbrouck

Dance educators are, by nature, giving people. We give our knowledge and time to our students; we donate time to local schools or community theaters. But there are bigger opportunities for giving that reach beyond each of us as individuals. Two school owners, Tanya Bleil-Geiselman and Kelly McEvoy, found these opportunities through the Make-a-Wish Foundation; others find their own path to giving.

Deb Collier decided to “adopt” Tiffani, whose mother had cancer. She and her school provided Tiffani with everything she needed to participate in classes and performances. (Photo courtesy Deb Collier)

Deb Collier decided to “adopt” Tiffani, whose mother had cancer. She and her school provided Tiffani with everything she needed to participate in classes and performances. (Photo courtesy Deb Collier)

Approaching what she considered to be a milestone birthday in 2006, McEvoy, of The Dance Center in Skippack, Pennsylvania, had her first such encounter. To keep herself from being depressed about the aging process, she decided to focus on someone in need. Since her husband was a board member for the New Jersey chapter of the Make-a-Wish Foundation, they chose Make-a-Wish as the benefactor of their fund-raising efforts. As a surprise, McEvoy’s faculty planned an ’80s-themed birthday party to celebrate as well as support her cause. In lieu of gifts for her big birthday, her faculty sent notes home to all students requesting donations to the Make-a-Wish Foundation to support this project. The response, according to McEvoy, was overwhelming. The giving continued with students bringing in the contents of their piggy banks and donations being made to the cause in lieu of the usual Christmas gifts for the teachers.

Her project reached beyond the initial party and her school and into the community, which offered contributions and in-kind services. Many services, such as the DJ for the party, were donated. She said that it was not unusual to receive a $100 check for a $5 fund-raising candle. According to McEvoy, the budget for most wishes is approximately $7,000; through her school’s efforts, they raised $9,000.

The money raised by The Dance Center was earmarked for a young boy whose wish is to attend a major-league baseball game with his family. (According to McEvoy, children are nominated to Make-a-Wish by family and friends, and each nomination is reviewed by the foundation’s board.) When his wish is granted, he and his family will be treated like royalty. Typically the children and their families are flown to the chosen event, ride in a limousine, stay in a four-star hotel with outstanding meals, and meet the celebrities. At baseball games, the children usually are allowed to throw out the first pitch and, of course, go behind the scenes.

McEvoy says she is thankful to have had her school of 470 students for 13 years and wants to continue to give back. The good feeling that comes from making a difference keeps her involved with this organization.

Tanya Bleil-Geiselman’s (see “Teacher in the Spotlight,” DSL, October 2007) experience with Make-a-Wish was also a positive one. A parent of one of her students at her school, Just For Kicks School of Dance in Port Orchard, Washington, was a “wish granter” and came to her with a little girl’s request to be a ballerina. The girl, Micah Hargrave, age 6, was in a wheelchair, and when asked to grant this wish, Bleil-Geiselman replied, “I have the perfect song for this!” In the dance, set to “In My Own Little Corner,” each student sat in a small chair; Micah’s wheelchair fit right into the choreography.

The wish granting allowed Micah to participate not only in class but also in the annual recital. Through her continued participation in dance at Tanya’s school, she has realized her dream of becoming a ballerina.

Bleil-Geiselman says the experience “instilled in me the promise that anything you can dream is possible and that spirit and desire can overcome the most severe frailty. The results were that a little girl’s dream of being a dancer came true, and I was proud that I could be part of making it happen.”

Collier and her school decided to “adopt” Tiffani, who had no prior dance experience, in 2004, providing her with everything she needed to participate in classes and performances.

“I think it shows people that whatever the circumstance, you can dance, even if it is just in your heart,” says Tanya’s mother, Pennie Bleil, who works in the school’s office.

Bleil-Geiselman says that the other students in the class, and their parents, were positive and supportive. She feels that this experience, although geared to Micah, has benefited all those involved. Her students have established a special bond with their new classmate. She feels that all the students at the school, not only those in Micah’s class, have learned to have a positive outlook about reaching out to others.

While organizations such as Make-a-Wish provide many dream-come-true opportunities for ill or handicapped children, many dance educators are wish-granters in their own right. Often they find these opportunities through personal encounters; their cause or challenge is then “adopted” by the educator and sometimes, her or his whole school.

Over the years Debra Collier of Warsaw, Indiana, has held toy and food drives at her school, Debra Collier’s School of Dance, with good results, but she became involved on a more personal level by chance. When placing a follow-up call to a mother interested in dance for her daughter, 8-year-old Tiffani, the mother told her that she had cancer and other health problems and was not sure about the future in terms of her survival or her ability to pay for lessons.

Collier and her school decided to “adopt” Tiffani, who had no prior dance experience, in 2004, providing her with everything she needed to participate in classes and performances. In addition, Collier and her staff have provided birthday and Christmas presents for Tiffani and taken her on small shopping trips and to dance and theater performances. Students’ parents have also participated by providing meals once a week on a regular basis and more frequently whenever Tiffani’s mother returns from a hospital stay.

Collier and her dance family have been a stable force for Tiffani and her mother for almost five years. This continued commitment shows the power of one small act of kindness.

At my school, Debbie Werbrouck’s School of Dance in northern Indiana, we have always been blessed with giving students who have supported numerous fund-raising events for food drives, muscular dystrophy research, and the American Cancer Society’s Relay For Life. We continue to receive support that provides scholarships in memory of students lost in tragedy. Through generous hearts, needs are made known and help is provided.

Our most recent experience involves a young girl who met one of our instructors at the hospital. When Karen Stump, herself a cancer patient (see “Quiet Strength,” DSL, May/June 2009), learned that this little girl, who was diagnosed with a brain tumor, wanted to dance, she set the wheels in motion. Stump let us know about this child and arranged to have classes provided for her—including one of her own classes so she could monitor the girl.

Almost every school owner and dance educator I know has given time, money, or services in a variety of special-needs areas, including providing joy and a short escape from the burden of illness through performances in pediatric wards, offering discreet “scholarships,” participating in food drives, sponsoring dance-a-thons, and adopting families in need.

As educators, we are teaching more than dance, and an important life lesson is reaching out beyond ourselves. Students who are reminded of their own good fortunes and who feel good about their ability to aid others gain perspective on what is truly important in life.

About the Make-a-Wish Foundation

Based in Phoenix, Arizona, and with local chapters across the country, the Make-a-Wish Foundation has been granting wishes since 1980.

Who is eligible: Children ages 2 ½ to 17 at the time their case is referred, who have life-threatening illnesses.

Types of wishes: In general, they fall into four categories: Children want to go somewhere (like a theme park, beach, or sporting event), be something (like a firefighter, model, or ballerina), meet someone (like an athlete, movie star, or recording artist), or get something (like a computer, tree house, or shopping spree). Last year the foundation granted 13,425 wishes at an average cost of $7,100 each.

There are many ways to help, including donating money, time, talents, or airline miles and doing fund-raising. Financial contributions are tax deductible. Visit wish.org or call 800.722.WISH for more information.