April 13 ceremony was the first wish Make-A-Wish New Jersey headquarters hosted in more than a year
By MADELEINE MACCAR
When a few cloudy, dreary days finally gave way to the springtime sun, it shone on the first wish that Make-A-Wish New Jersey’s headquarters hosted in more than a year.
The private ceremony, held April 13, honored the legacy of 2-and-a-half-year-old Penelope, a brave young girl who spent her short life battling neuroblastoma, a type of cancer that attacks nerve tissue and most commonly affects children.
She passed away in February.
But Penny’s legacy will endure with the posthumous granting of her big-hearted wish: a $10,000 donation to Tackle Kids Cancer, the Hackensack Meridian Children’s Health Children’s Cancer Institute’s philanthropic initiative that raises funds for both pediatric cancer research and programs for its children’s hospital, where Penny was treated.
“Penny liked to help around the house, she liked to help the doctors, so we were thinking this could be her way of helping with the future of pediatric cancer research,” Penny’s mom, Cassandra Izquierdo, said after the ceremony held at Make-a-Wish headquarters, the Samuel & Josephine Plumeri Wishing Place, in Monroe Township.
The day was packed with emotional reunions, an outpouring of gratitude and a surprise visit from former New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning as Penny’s parents, members of her medical team and Make-A-Wish representatives gathered to celebrate a big wish from a little girl.
“I was a little nervous at first: There were so many people and cameras, but everyone helped us feel comfortable really quickly,” said Penny’s father Jack Lindsay.
Tom Weatherall has been Make-A-Wish New Jersey’s president and CEO for 16 of his 19 years with the organization. He’s seen nearly 10,000 wishes come true in that time and, while he says that each child, family and circumstance made every one of those wishes unique, one like Penny’s is downright uncommon.
“Typically, we grant wishes from the four most popular categories: I wish to go, I wish to be, I wish to have, I wish to meet,” he said. “And then there’s this fifth rare category: I wish to give. We only see a handful a year. Penny’s parents felt very strongly that anything that could be done to avoid another family from having to experience what their young, precious daughter did at the dawn of her life.”
Izquierdo and Lindsay say it’s no surprise their daughter was thinking of others, which is why they so ardently followed through on doing something to support the facility that took care of their daughter.
“Penelope was very independent and liked to do things for herself, which I think is why she wanted to help all the time—she wanted to learn how to do things and then do them her own way,” Izquierdo said. “She was also very nurturing. She had a lot of baby dolls, and she loved her babies. She was always taking care of them and feeding them and rocking them to sleep. I always told her she was such a good mommy to them.”
For the Make-A-Wish family, nearly four decades and tens of thousands of wishes are daily reminders that all it takes is one gesture to make a huge impact.
“The experiences that our staff and board and myself and our volunteers and our donors have witnessed for almost 40 years of operation in New Jersey are what inspire us,” Weatherall said. “Penny’s wish was one of the most inspirational. These families draw a strength that is quite incredible, so you see, feel and observe something that is extraordinary. To be around people like that time and time and time again, I find, is the most fulfilling experience, and it makes you want to do them justice.”
If Penny’s wish demonstrated the depth of her unusual empathy, having Manning there to help make it happen spoke of how often and generously the G-Men give back, too.
“The Giants ownership has created a culture that, at every level of the organization, embraces, celebrates and welcomes our kids: To say that they’re one of the greatest wish-granting organizations, there’s truth behind that,” Weatherall said. “Every time a child wants to meet their favorite player, what’s really going to happen is they’ll meet the entire team, speak to them, get into the huddle and give a pre-game speech. … They’ll be on the sidelines so the players can run over and give them high-fives, then be invited up to the suite to watch the game.”
While Weatherall says it’s absolutely expected that the Giants will “go above and beyond” for Make-A-Wish children, Manning’s in-person support absolutely bowled over Penny’s parents.
“I turned around and Eli Manning was there!” Izquierdo said with a laugh. “I had seen him before on a Zoom call I did with another foundation for Penelope, and I thought that was amazing—but then he showed up for this, and that was just beyond amazing. He was so genuine and really kind, and I think Penelope would have loved him.”
And for the Make-A-Wish New Jersey family, Penny’s donation was not only a reminder of how much love a young heart has to give but also a glimmer of optimism for the future.
“Every wish is different and unique because we’ve never done it for that child or that family before,” Weatherall said. “But what made this one so incredibly special was the story of Penny’s family wanting to honor her legacy as we’re—hopefully—coming out of this pandemic. The actual fulfilling of a wish as well as the symbolism of the light at the end of the tunnel was everything that castle was built to do.”
Izquierdo and Lindsay agree that it was one very special day that Penny made possible.
“It was amazing, it was perfect,” Izquierdo said. “Tackle Kids Cancer actually funded the clinical trial that Penelope was a part of. We need more clinical trials to find a cure, and the fact that Penelope was able to make a difference by giving back was really special.”
Visit wish.org/nj for more information about Make-A-Wish New Jersey.