By Lillian Cox
VISTA — It had been two months since the holiday season, but it seemed like Christmas all over again at the Moonlight Amphitheater the night of Feb. 23.
A jubilant crowd turned out for The Big Reveal, a celebration and check presentation to the Make-A-Wish Foundation of San Diego from the community of Vista. It was the culmination of Vista’s Big Give, a fundraising effort by the Vista Unified School District, the city of Vista, local businesses and residents who rallied behind the cause of making a wish come true for two children who are battling life-threatening medical conditions.
Taking center stage were guests of honor Justin Rizzo, 5, of Oceanside and Molly Streicher, 10, of San Marcos. Justin has a life-threatening heart condition and wished to go to Disney World. Molly has been battling Ewing’s Sarcoma and wished to be on the Disney Channel show “Shake It Up.”
The event began with a color guard from Camp Pendleton followed by the pledge of allegiance. Entertainment was provided by bands from Rancho Buena Vista and Vista high schools and Rancho Buena Vista High’s Maroon Magic Dance Team.
Making remarks were Vista Councilman Steve Gronke, school Superintendent Dr. Joyce Bales and Make-A-Wish president and CEO Chris Sichel.
“Nearly every day in our region, a child is diagnosed with a life-threatening illness,” Sichel told the crowd. “Despite these tough economic times, no child has had to wait for their wish. Some have asked how we’ve been able to keep granting every wish without delay. It’s because of people like you — people who put others first.”
When a check for $43,000 was presented to Justin and Molly, cameras flashed to cheers and smiles. It was difficult to know who was happier, the gift recipients or the hundreds of givers.
“Everyone wanted to touch Justin and Molly and they were so proud,” said co-organizer Beth Duncan. “The kids go on the wish but every person involved feels that they are going, too. We were complete strangers, but when we see them, we love them, and we experience it in a different way.”
Duncan, a teacher at Vista Academy of the Visual and Performing Arts, has been involved in Make-A-Wish on a smaller scale since 2007. She organized the First Big Gift in 2009, recruiting her journalism class who rallied support for the first community-wide fundraising event.
“Academics are very important but if you don’t have a kind heart and compassion, then I’m not doing my job,” she explained.
Duncan met Kelly McKinney, ASB director of Rancho Buena Vista High School, during the beginning of last year’s event and took her on as a co-organizer.
“I connected with Kelly,” Duncan explained. “She’s extremely organized and passionate about kids and community. She offered to have the 2009 Big Gift at Rancho Buena Vista High School.
“On the night of the Big Give 2009 we had $41,000. Money kept coming in and it was $45,000. It was a huge success.”
Because of the six-month time commitment in organizing the Big Give, Duncan and McKinney decided to skip 2010. They came together again last summer when McKinney contacted Duncan and said, “Are you ready?”
“Where I didn’t have strengths, Kelly had strengths,” Duncan explained. “She’s the behind-the-scenes organizer and I’m the one who does the talking. For the first time ever Vista and Rancho Buena Vista high schools had a dance together, and Kelly was the mastermind of that.”
During the week of Feb. 7 to Feb. 11, approximately 28 elementary, middle and high schools conducted an event including rock concerts, Kiss the Pig challenges, bake sales, dance benefits and coin drives. City employees, the Vista Fire Department Association, local businesses and Vista residents also participated by making contributions and hosting fundraisers.
“I’m very proud of all the schools,” Duncan added. “California Avenue Elementary School raised almost $1,000 and they are a very small school that serves children with special needs.”
In addition to oversized gift baskets, Justin was presented with a giant teddy bear and Molly with a Taylor guitar identical to the one used by one of her heroes, Taylor Swift.
Donations can still be made online at www.vistasbiggive.blogspot.com. To learn more about Make-A-Wish, visit wishsandiego.org.