A trip to a Build-a-Bear store ($30) … a set of Mickey Mouse curtains ($54) … money to join a sports team ($80) … new shoes ($60) and new outfits ($120) for the winter … a video game console to be able to play games with friends ($145) … a camera to capture memories ($162).
One Simple Wish, the Trenton-based nonprofit that celebrated its 15th anniversary last month, has a unique mission: to bring joy and joyous moments to children in crisis.
Founder Danielle Gletow said she started One Simple Wish after she and her husband began fostering children and saw this huge gap in coverage provided by numerous child services agencies.
“Kids have a lot of needs,” she said. “And one of the things that we oftentimes saw was missing, was their access to anything joyful. It was all basic needs: ‘Are they clothed, are they housed, are they getting to medical appointments, are they getting to court appointments or visitation,’ things like that.
“It was never: ‘Are they getting a birthday party? And if so, is it at the place they want to go to? Are they getting to pick out the clothes they want to wear? Are they participating in school sports — and, if so, is anyone covering the cost of uniforms, equipment and lessons? Are they going to the kind of summer camp that they want to go to?’ I could go on forever.
“Joy is a need. I don’t know why we don’t recognize that.”
The wishes are not huge … at least, financially. Most of the approximately 28,000 requests the group filled in 2023 were less than $100. But they mean everything to the kids involved.
“We do grant wishes for PlayStations and iPhones and Air Jordans, but the general range is between $10 and $250,” she said.
Every wish received in 2023 was filled — or soon will be filled, thanks to the more than 35,000 annual donors who combined to donate more than $4.5 million.
Gletow, however, is clear about one thing: When wishes are fulfilled, it’s about the child, not the donor.
Kids will get gift cards to local stores for what they want, then get to go out with their caregiver to pick out what they want.
“People don’t understand the value of getting to pick out what they want at the store they want to go to — the store where all of your friends go,” she said. “We’re putting dignity first. And, at a time when we are facing such serious mental health challenges, shouldn’t everyone?”
Some wealthy donors often donate tens of thousands of dollars. And, while One Simple Wish is grateful, the donors are told it will never be about them.
For instance, you’ll never see an event where a donor is handing out shoes or bikes to kids in front of a camera.
“How awkward and uncomfortable is that for a child?” Gletow said. “We want to create a positive experience that can be shared — with dignity — with the person who has been a positive person in their lives. We want to create a joyous occasion.”
Here’s how the program was created — and how it works:
- The origin: One Simple Wish started as an effort to help kids in the foster system. It has grown to include any child or family in need. “It can be someone in a shelter, or someone living with their grandparents — really, anyone in need,” Gletow said.
- Where does the funding come from: Gletow estimates 90% of the donations are from individuals. Some will fill a specific wish, some will give money and have OSW decide where it’s best served, some will pick a particular state or region that they want to support. “However people want to help, we let them,” she said.
- It is not just in Jersey: This is a national program. Gletow said OSW has partners in every state, but that New Jersey, along with California, Florida and Ohio, brings in the most requests.
- How a wish is made: All requests to One Simple Wish have to come through an approved partner, whether it is special services organization or a religious institution. It can be a guidance counselor at a school. The reason is not so much to vet the request, but to ensure that those in need are connected to some sort of program that may be able to meet other needs. “We want to start those conversations,” Gletow said.
- It is not one wish per customer: Despite the name, One Simple Wish will fulfill multiple requests. “It’s not, ‘One Big Gesture,’ and we’re gone,” Gletow said. “We continue to be a resource for as long as these individuals need us.”
- That’s why OSW is not just for kids: As kids get older, their needs change. It can be items for a new living arrangement (dishes, a vacuum, a TV) or items for a new career (tuition, a computer). Gletow said no one ever ages out of the system.
Gletow, who left her job in 2008 as a marketing director for an advertising agency that worked with pharmaceutical companies, said she is stunned to see the growth of the organization.
There is enough funding to be able to fulfill some of the larger requests that come in. And, one year, an individual who made a large donation said they wanted to provide unique experiences. Gletow said she gathered a dozen from around the country. She still remembers her favorite: A child in Oregon was able to travel to San Diego for a sushi eating contest.
There are the occasional requests to meet athletes, too. One Simple Wish does what it can. Gletow recalled a lifelong New York Yankees fan getting to meet the team’s biggest star of this generation. She also recalled the star shortstop only said he would do it if there was not any press.
“It was really special,” she said. “The child not only got to watch him take batting practice, he sat and talked to him for an hour. Really made the child feel special.”
Gletow hasn’t been able to avoid the spotlight herself. In addition to numerous print and video stories about One Simple Wish, she was recognized as a CNN Hero in 2013.
The publicity usually brings a surge in donations, but it’s never enough to be self-sustaining. Gletow said she is forever grateful to the individual donors that make One Simple Wish possible.
“They make this possible,” she said.
Surprisingly, companies and foundations haven’t stepped up as much — especially those based in New Jersey.
“I wish it wasn’t the case, but most of the money we get from corporations is from companies outside of the state,” she said.
Gletow said it’s a frustration she no longer worries about. The mission of One Simple Wish is too important, she said.
“We have about 35,000 donors, so we are definitely built for the masses,” she said. “And that’s intentional, because this isn’t just about the money and the donations and the wishes getting met. It’s about the conversations that happen because of it.
“It’s about opening the eyes of people who otherwise might never talk about foster care or homelessness or housing insecurity or prison reentry. There’s a lot of things that we can bring into the mainstream that I don’t think any other organization can.”
Making children feel special, Gletow said, is what One Simple Wish does best. She said the number of wishes that come in from children who are being bullied — often for being poor — breaks her heart. Helping out, even for brief moment, means everything to her.
“It’s pretty amazing,” she said. “If you look at our Instagram, there are lots of stories that warm your heart. We’re always very careful — we put hearts over the children’s faces — but you can really get a sense of what it means when somebody is actually asked what they need, versus told that this is what they need.
“Sometimes, it’s completely shocking to them, because nobody’s ever asked them.”
It’s pure joy, she said.