Jamie Holmes has undergone 45 surgeries in her life -- she's only 25 years old. When being prepared for a surgery at age 14, Holmes said she told herself if she made it out, she would start a foundation that would help bring joy to others touched by illness or tragedy.
At age 18, that's what she did. Forming Jamie's Dream Team right after graduating high school and operating it as a start up while attending community college, Holmes began helping people in the Pittsburgh, Penn., area. What's different about Jamie's Dream Team, compared to other larger, wish-granting organizations, according to Holmes, is the emphasis she places on her volunteer-base being patients or those touched by illness themselves.
Holmes said her model of having patients helping patients is a win-win for everyone involved.
"Maybe they will look at things a little differently," Holmes said of patient volunteers and noted that by helping others she herself also reaps benefits. "It's like therapy."
Here Jamie explain her organization and why she created it:
Holmes said that those who have undergone a serious illness have a special understanding and compassion for helping others who are sick or experiencing a tragedy.
"Their hearts are fully in it," she said, but did note that the team of course welcomes volunteers who have not necessarily been touched by illness themselves.
Zach Mulvey, age 11, is a prime example of Holmes' philosophy. Mulvey was the recipient of a wish by Jamie's Dream Team in 2010 after he had just undergone his second heart transplant.
Zach's mother, Crystal, said when he came home the hospital he was pretty down emotionally. What Jamie's team did for Zach was transform his room with a custom bed and characters from Zelda and Star Wars painted on the walls. He also got an honest-to-goodness arcade game machine. Not only did this help cheer Zach up, but he was inspired by the artists who worked on his room and has since taken up drawing. Crystal also said she has seen a drive in him to be a volunteer.
"He is so caring and wants to help other people now," Crystal said, explaining that she does see an added bit of compassion in Zach compared to her other two children who have been healthy.
To Crystal, it's the the personal nature of Jamie's Dream Team that sets it apart. She said they have maintained strong contact with Jamie, who travels to meet each wish recipient. Crystal also paid-it-forward, helping Jamie make another dream come true. Crystal explained that a friend of hers who had a terminal form of cancer and his long-time girlfriend had long wanted to get married. The wedding -- horse-drawn carriage and all -- was a dream Jamie made a reality.
"Jamie is such a wonderful person," Crystal said. "She goes out of her way to make people feel really special."
Unlike other organizations, Jamie's Dream Team is not restrictive based on age or prognosis. In fact, Jamie says she hates even thinking in terms of prognosis.
"When someone asks 'what is your prognosis?' I say "I don't know. I don't want to know," she said. "You can't tell someone their life expectancy, because you don't know if they could get in a car accident the next day. You just don't know."
Tom Exler is another who was inspired by Jamie to help. Although not a wish recipient, the 46-year-old heard of Jamie's endeavors at a local hospital. From a more logistical standpoint for the organization, Exler is using his talents to help Jamie build the Dream Team and learn more about the ins and outs of spreading the word to grow her non-profit.
Exler is yet another volunteer who also brings a past of living with medical issues to the table, but he sees these challenges in a different light compared to many. He underwent seven to eight major surgeries at a young age and it is memories from the hospital that spurred him to volunteer.
"I got to see kids far sicker than I was," Exler said. "You learn a lot from people with major medical issues."
He also said for some battling illness, seeing others with medical issues living normal lives can be an encouragement.
This video showing a Christmas wish being granted is one of Exler's favorite dreams that he's been involved with so far (Note: The man playing Santa was previously involved with Jamie's Dream Team and was called upon to help out here):
Jamie's Dream Team was quietly growing making headlines in local news, but the organization really got a national push last week when it helped send a little girl from Ohio to Disney World. McKenna May had battled with cancer and was granted a trip to the "happiest place on earth" by the Make-A-Wish Foundation, but her father wouldn't sign the paperwork to allow her to go. Without the legal stipulation of both parents needing to consent, Jamie's Dream Team stepped in and McKenna is heading to Disney in August.
Holmes said after news of her organization helping McKenna went national, she has since received thousands of requests for making dreams come true. Is she daunted? Not really. Does she want to make them all come true? Yes.
Jamie explained that her ultimate plan is to have her organization become international. She uses an analogy to explain her thought process, saying she starts at the roof rather than the foundation when she looks at her non-profit. With this she means that she isn't changing her goals based on the fact that the fact that all the stones aren't in place for her to reach them yet.
Exler said they are making strides to grow the organization and get it to the next level.
"When Jamie calls me and says 'I'm going to make this happen,'" Exler said, regardless of the size of what "this" is, "Knowing Jamie, it's sure going to happen or at least be a good try."