What is it about wishes and dreams that sustains the human soul?

What is it about possibilities that captivate the heart?

What is it about a wish fulfilled that sends a burst of joy through the being, as Albert Einstein said, "like a flaming firebrand flung into the gathering darkness of the world?"

Whatever it is, the Make-A-Wish Foundation of Utah experiences it in rich abundance.

"To dream, to hope, to wish is a part of every culture," says Christine Sharer, CEO of the foundation. "Something about it resonates with humans everywhere. We simply remind people that no matter what, they can keep doing it."

This year the Make-A-Wish Foundation, which grants wishes to children with life-threatening medical conditions, is celebrating its 25th anniversary. The Utah chapter has been going strong for 20 years. Since 1985, the local group has granted about 1,600 wishes, says Sharer. Last year, they fulfilled the dreams of 135 children. "We now average about three wishes a week."

It began with a child named Chris, who lived in Arizona. Chris wanted to be a policeman — but he had childhood leukemia, and his health was declining. Friends and neighbors got together and arranged for him to get a miniature uniform and badge; they swore him in as the first and only state trooper in the state. They took him on a helicopter ride. "Chris died three days later," explains Sharer, "and his story got broadcast in all the media. People started thinking they would like to do something like that in their own communities. It really started as a grass-roots effort." Make-A-Wish was born.

The first wish granted in Utah was actually for a girl who lived in Florida. Her best friend moved to Park City, and she wanted to come and play in the snow. Later, a boy in the Midwest wanted to celebrate Christmas in July. "Where could he find snow at that time of year? In the high Uintas," says Sharer. "He knew he was not going to live to Christmas, but he wanted to have one last holiday. He and his family were brought to a cabin here. They celebrated Thanksgiving on Thursday and Christmas on the weekend."

Those experiences, she says, "inspired the Utah chapter to get going." At first, it was an all-volunteer organization, says Sharer, who has been with it from the beginning. "That first year, we granted five wishes."

But things have grown, and the program has changed to the point where, "we now have eight full-time employees. But we still work with a host of volunteers — about 250 are on our wish-granting staff." It is funded solely by private donations, and 85 percent of all money raised goes directly into programs and services, she says.

Over the years, Make-A-Wish has learned some things about making the process more special in a child's life. Two years ago, the Utah chapter was able to build its very own Wishing Place, located in Murray. "We are now the only chapter in the country with a place where wishes happen," says Sharer.

"We used to just go to people's homes to grant wishes. But we did some focus groups with the kids and found out they would rather go somewhere else," says Sharer.

The kids used a lot of magical imagery; they talked about castles and moats. So those were incorporated into the Wishing Place. Plans were done and donated by VCBO Architecture.

"The kids wanted something that could be left behind as an expression of hope, something they could come visit when they got better," says Sharer. So the Wishing Place includes a galaxy of stars. "After their wish is fulfilled, they come and pull their star up into the constellation." The children also get a page in a book that tells about their wishes and their star.

One of the biggest changes that has come to the program over the years, Sharer explains, is that wishes are no longer granted just to children who are dying. "We never talk about last wishes or being terminally ill. In the early years, we granted a wish at the end of life, when there was no hope left. We realized that's not the time to do it. We grant wishes much earlier in the process, at a time when we might not know whether the children are survivors or not. It's a much happier time."

To qualify for the program, children have been diagnosed with a condition that is "malignant, progressive or degenerative, that puts their life in jeopardy. That means every child with cancer qualifies, for example. Some survive; some don't. But we try to serve them at a stage in their illness when it has more meaning."

Children are referred to the program, generally by pediatricians or social workers.

Another thing that the focus-group children requested was a wishing process that takes longer, says Sharer.

So, now wish kids come to the wishing place three times: once to make their wish, once to have their wish granted, and then to raise their star.

The child receives an invitation with a key to the Wishing Room. The first thing they and their family do is play The Wishing Quest, a board game created by Make-A-Wish of Utah, where they move around a board and answer questions about what they like, what they dream about, what they do. "By the time they get around the board, we get to know them pretty well. Some children know exactly what they want. But some have not really thought about it. This helps to get them thinking."

Then the child writes down three wishes. "We try to grant their first wish, but sometimes it's not possible," says Sharer.

The kids place their wishes in a cylinder and take it into the Wishing Room, where in a ceremony accompanied by a magical light show, family members share their wishes for each other.

Wishes cover the whole gamut of possibilities, she says, but they generally fall into one of four categories: kids want to go somewhere, they want to be something, they want to have something, or they want to meet someone.

For example: Zach wanted a dirt bike, Eric wanted to photograph wildlife in the Galapagos Islands, Shane wanted a drum set, Aubrey wanted a computer, Samuel wanted to visit the Magic Kingdom, Brendon wanted to meet Barry Bonds, Jacob wanted to be a baker, Brigham wanted a Tarzan-like tree house, Brandon wanted to be a cowboy.

And who's to say that any one wish is any better than another, Sharer says. Disneyland trips are popular, but part of that is because kids know how hard their illness has been on their families and the trip is a way to give something back to the family, she says. For other kids, meeting a particular person can be very meaningful. Michael Jordan used to be the most-requested celebrity. That's changed a little since he's retired, Sharer says. For Karl Malone, too, who used to be high on the list. LDS President Gordon B. Hinckley is the most-requested local person, for kids here and for some from out-of-state. "They have all been very gracious in meeting our kids."

Once the wishes are recorded, they are turned over to Wish Granters who find ways to make it happen. Some wishes have not been easy. And for some, she says, you have to think in terms of miracles.

For example, there was Jason, who wanted to visit John Paul II. Bishop George Niederauer of Salt Lake contacted the Vatican on his behalf. Then, "a small window in Jason's treatment opened to make the journey possible despite his failing health. Immigration obstacles yielded to the kindness of a passport official and a determined attorney. A Spanish-speaking priest was found to accompany Jason and his family to Rome, interpreting and providing spiritual strength." Jason celebrated mass with the Pope and later had a private meeting with him.

One of Sharer's all-time favorite wish experiences was the boy who wished his divorced parents would get remarried. "We told him we couldn't do anything about that. He said, 'OK, then I want to go to Disneyland with my mom and my dad and my friend.' So, while he and his friend were riding all the rides, the parents sat on the bench to watch, and they talked about their little boy, and they talked about their lives, and they began falling in love again and ended up getting married again. That won't always happen, of course, but a kid's drive and determination can be pretty powerful."

As Frank Nilson, director of program services for Make-A-Wish of Utah, says, "I have the best job in the state. I get paid to be Santa Claus every day."

But the most wonderful thing about it all, he says, is not the actual wish. "It's giving the child some control back. It's giving them the fun of anticipation and waiting. It's creating memories for the child and their family."

It's also about being part of a larger community that gathers around them to offer hope, strength and joy, says Sharer. For one brief, shining moment, children who "have had to endure terrible things, have had no control over the invasive things done to their bodies, can say, 'I wish my life could be like this.' And they have the power to make it happen." That's the power of a wish.

E-mail: carma@desnews.com