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It’s all about the smiles: Make-A-Wish North Dakota leader finds job a ‘perfect fit’

FARGO — When Billi Jo Zielinski surprised Jade McGough at Scheels All Sports to tell him his wish was granted, it was a little hard to tell who was more excited.

The 16-year-old McGough, dealing with a degenerative condition called arteriovenous malformation, was all smiles after being informed that he and his family would be taking a trip to the Atlantis resort in the Bahamas.

Zielinski, 41, the new president and CEO of Make-A-Wish North Dakota, was just as cheerful. With a smile beaming across her face, she delivered the 30-year-old state chapter’s 700th wish.

The experience was just as rewarding for her personally as it was professionally. A year ago she was unemployed and undergoing chemotherapy and radiation treatments after a double mastectomy to beat cancer.

“It was exciting,” she said after the surprise wish was revealed. “Just to see his smile, that’s what it’s all about. I was part of making him smile that wide, and that gives me lots of pride.”

Down time News of an illness rarely comes at an opportune time, but it was particularly trying for Zielinski.

She and her family were moving back to Fargo in May 2012 when she felt a lump on her breast. It was at the same time that her aunt died of cancer, and that put Zielinski in denial that she may have the disease.

She eventually went to the doctor and was diagnosed with stage 3c cancer.

She started chemotherapy that fall to try to shrink the tumor, then underwent a double mastectomy just before Thanksgiving.

After three surgeries she started chemo again, this time for 12 weeks, followed by 33 days of radiation, ending in late May 2013.

After a summer of resting and regaining her strength, Zielinski started looking for a job. Having previously worked for a nonprofit in the health industry, she was excited to discover the opening for Make-A-Wish’s N.D. president.

“I felt immediately this was a mission I could advance and I had a passion for. I feel to this day it’s a perfect fit,” she said. “I not only have the skill set, but this unique perspective with families and children in that I faced my own life-threatening condition, knowing how much I appreciated having some joy in those darkest days.”

She was hired in October and immediately dove into work.

There’s a lot of work and networking that goes into making wishes, and over the past six months Zielinski has crisscrossed the state meeting some of the 170 volunteers, attending meetings, and working on fundraising, program services and awareness.

“I’m kind of a Jill of all trades,” she said.

She’s also done that on a national scale, attending more meetings and conferences, like the one where she heard Linda Pauling, mother of the first “wish kid,” Chris Grecius, give a testimonial. Grecius was a 7-year-old being treated for leukemia in 1980. He wanted to be a police officer, so a group in law enforcement created a daylong experience to lift his spirits. Grecius died shortly after, but the officers’ action that day inspired the founding of Make-A-Wish.

Zielinski was moved by how the officers’ gestures helped not only the young boy, but his family.

“It’s not just the child who is impacted. It’s the whole family,” she said. “My cancer didn’t just affect me. It affected my kids, my husband and my mom. My whole family received the diagnosis.”

Now she gets to meet with families facing their own health crises.

“As a family, they’re going through this, (the wish) will help them have some time together to reflect on what they’ve been through and what they have going forward. … It’s a chance to help them enjoy each other as a family and get away from the doctors’ appointments. That’s why we do it every day. It’s not a ‘nice to have.’ It’s a ‘need to have.’ It’s a turning point.”

Making a difference Make-A-Wish published statistics on the effectiveness of the wishes, and 74 percent of parents say having a wish granted was a turning point in the child’s response to treatment. In the same study, 89 percent of health care professionals said wish granting can influence a child’s physical health.

Ninety-six percent of parents said a granted wish helped the family bond.

While Make-A-Wish makes a positive difference, she knows there are some families who refuse the help because they may think it admits their child’s death is impending.

Though Make-A-Wish started off as a program for terminally ill children, it has since shifted to cover kids with life-threatening, but not necessarily terminal, conditions.

Correcting that misconception is one of the hardest battles she has to fight.

“It takes a lot to change perception,” she said.

She has the right approach, say some of her board members

“She’s an absolute ray of light. Her smile and personality makes you happy … I would guess most people don’t even realize she’s a (cancer) survivor,” said Kelly Braun, the Dickinson-based board chair who has been associated with the organization for 14 years.

“I think that when she talks with kids and meets with them, she understands more so than someone who’s never been through it,” he said.

Brad Dahl, the North Dakota chapter’s secretary, agrees.

“When you hear these kids talk about their wish, they’re pain-free. They forget about the doctors, the needles,” the Fargo man said. “It’s just such a relief and Billi Jo brings that home. (She) lived through the chemo and radiation. (She) knows what these kids are going through.”

“It’s sad that we have to exist as an organization, but I know it’s good that we exist to offer a respite,” Zielinski said.

“No one should have to go through this,” she said, tearing up. “I’m an adult and I had to go through it and I didn’t like it. As a mom, having to go through surgeries, chemo and radiation, that’s a tough thing.”

Still, she finds inspiration in the videos families make of their wish experiences. Some choose to go to a resort or a theme park. Some choose an experience like riding with dolphins.

No matter what the wish, the reaction is a dream come true for Zielinski.

“I can feel even through these videos, it’s just pure joy. You see the smile on their faces,” she said. “I’m moved every time by this little bit of joy.”

Asked what her wish would have been if she had cancer when she was a little girl, Zielinski thinks hard for a few moments.

“Wonder Woman was the only role model that was encouraging to other women then,” she said. “My wish would to be Wonder Woman and have a magic lasso. I lived in a trailer court. I didn’t have a lot of exposure to other things. I don’t think I even knew of Disney World.”

Now, her wish is simply for continued good health.

“It’s pretty practical and not as magical, but I hope to live a long, healthy life, to make a difference in this world. But every once in a while, I can still wear my Wonder Woman suit.”