“What do you dream of? More than anything.” It’s the question Toby’s Dream Foundation volunteer Dream Makers ask children facing life-threatening illnesses during visits to their homes.
“You’re the bright light that comes in when everything else is dark,” Executive Director and Founder Joan Steele says of the foundation’s Dream Makers. “You’re the bright light that comes in and says, ‘Here’s what we’re going to do for you.’”
These inspiring young children face challenges brought on from cancer, brain tumors, rare syndromes and genetic disorders. When they’re burdened by the circumstances surrounding their illnesses and families are aware of the uncertainty of tomorrow, Toby’s Dream Foundation steps in and nurtures them as a part of their family.
Since its establishment in 2009, Toby’s Dream Foundation has served over 400 children in our region, making their dreams come true with trips to Disney World, meeting celebrities and professional athletes, attending sporting events, going on shopping sprees—anything they can imagine.
In the last year the foundation made a dream come true for a 15-year-old boy who went diving with sharks. The memories from his trip served as encouragement when his cancer returned two months after his trip. He had a stem cell transplant and shared how grateful he was for his experience.
Within the last year, Toby’s Dream Foundation sent a family with their 5-year-old son with an inoperable brain tumor to Disney World, planning the accommodations for their trip at Disney’s Give Kids the World Village. Since the boy couldn’t fly due to his illness, the family drove down to Disney. A few days after their arrival, the boy earned his angel wings, so Toby’s Dream Foundation changed their mission during the trip to support the family. They contacted the funeral home and arranged additional time at the village for the family to mourn their loss and planned their flights home. In a time of sorrow, Toby’s Dream Foundation helped this family by giving them their love and care, sharing their compassion during a time of unimaginable loss.
Between hospital visits, families wouldn’t usually stop to plan a trip to Disney World. But Toby’s Dream Foundation gives these children hope for their dreams. These families have pictures of their children smiling, and memories of their happiness they’ll keep for a lifetime.
Left to right: Joanna Willette, Sarah Rostock and Sarah Haggerty at Toby's Dream
Joan Steele, executive director and founder of Toby's Dream Foundation.
“It takes a team of dedicated staff, volunteers, board of directors and donors to make these dreams come true,” expresses Steele, who adds that the hospital medical personnel have also embraced their organization by referring children to Toby’s Dream Foundation.
During my visit to Toby’s Dream Foundation’s office space in Virginia Beach Town Center, Steele shares that she founded the organization with her nonprofit experience and a specific focus on serving children in our area. “I think one of our greatest selling points for potential donors is that we’re a local organization for local children, so 100 percent of your dollars stay in our community.”
Steele and the staff handle the logistical aspects involved with the dreams, which begins with referral forms sent from the hospitals, often CHKD and Portsmouth Naval Hospital, along with an eligibility form signed by the child’s physician confirming their life-threatening illness. This precedes a phone call welcoming the family to the Toby’s Dream Foundation family, followed by an interview with volunteers at the family’s home where they meet and talk with the child and discover their dream. This interview can require a substantial amount of paperwork, including publicity releases and liability forms.
For trips to Disney World, they’ll send the entire family living in the household, 18 and under, along with mom and dad, with no out-of-pocket expenses, regardless of income. From flights to lodging, attractions, souvenirs and meals, it can cost a family of four over $9,000 for a trip to Disney World for a week. All of this is covered by Toby’s Dream Foundation, along with any other trips they desire to the nearby Universal Studios, SeaWorld, Legoland and Cape Canaveral. If the child needs special medical equipment such as a wheelchair or oxygen, Toby’s Dream Foundation will take care of these arrangements. “This isn’t about what you can or cannot afford, it’s about this child. It’s about your child that deserves this,” Steele asserts. “Your child has gone through a lot or is going through a lot, and they deserve this special time.”
At their office space, Steele shows me their wall full of photos of children part of the Toby’s Dream Foundation family, along with their professionally designed gift boxes assembled by their staff, the Dream Team. They’re personalized with favorite cartoon shows, movies and characters, imprinted with the child’s name and containing a Toby’s Dream Foundation T-shirt and teddy bear.
Steele introduces me to Joanna Willette, a Dream Mom who lost her child but courageously volunteers with the organization. “They came into our house and became our family … they took care of things that we didn’t know we needed at a time that was awful,” Willette says, holding back tears. “I remember I was in a Bible study prior to any of this happening in my life, and a woman had lost her daughter, and she said, ‘You see God’s blessings in little ways.’ And I remember thinking to myself, ‘Oh my God, I would never see God’s blessings in something like that, never’ … and then going through it myself, I know exactly it was a blessing from God, and it was what we needed at a time and we didn’t know it.” Commending the profound impact of Toby’s Dream Foundation, Willette adds, “This organization jumps in and becomes your family in a way that I never knew was possible.”
Bravyck with Mickey Mouse at Disney World.
At the end of the day, I accompany Toby’s Dream Foundation to a sendoff party with pizza, cake and balloons for Bravyck, an 8-year-old who has been fighting embryonal rhabdomyosarcoma, a cancer of muscle tissue. His mom and dad, who have been stationed at Fort Eustis for the past few years, share that they have been fortunate that his cancer has been less aggressive and show me photos of his improvement from the past six months. Today he’s smiling as he enjoys his pizza and Toby’s Dream Foundation gift box alongside his two younger siblings, excited for their trip to Disney World.
To see the dreams come true for these children is what makes it a wonderful experience for those involved with Toby’s Dream Foundation. “To give them this opportunity, to help the parents create memories for a lifetime, I’m honored to be able to do that, and I am grateful to the community for supporting us so that we can continue to do that,” reflects Steele. “That’s why we’re here.”