By Victoria Kearney, Special to The Catholic Virginian

For decades, Sue Corney had dreamed of taking a hot air balloon ride over the mountains, but when she was asked to submit a wish to Our Lady of Peace’s Make-a-Wish program, she didn’t fully expect her dream to come true.

“I had gone to a balloon fest in the 60’s with my family,” said Mrs. Corney, 72. “All these balloonists came to the Adirondacks in upstate New York and we watched them take off one by one. That was my introduction to the whole thrill of ballooning.”

In the balloon before the ride (l-r), Sue Corney, Our Lady of Peace Executive Director Sara Warden, Lola Leonard, and Nina Motzno.

When Mrs. Corney was approached by Our Lady of Peace administrator Pam Butler about submitting a wish, the memory of the balloon festival prompted her reply.

“She said to me, ‘have you made a wish yet?’ I said ‘no,’ and she asked, ‘why don’t you?’” Ms. Corney recalled. “So I said, laughing, ‘I’d like to go up in a balloon,’ thinking it could never happen.”

Mrs. Corney was surprised a few months later when Sara Warden, executive director at Our Lady of Peace, announced that her wish for a balloon ride was going to come true.

“We went up one early morning,” Mrs. Corney said about the sunrise balloon ride, which she took with two other residents and friends of hers. “Sara came in and got us all up at 5:30 in the morning. And we had such a wonderful experience.”

Every day, Our Lady of Peace retirement community in Charlottesville strives to bring happiness into their residents’ lives. That effort became even bigger when Ms. Warden decided to reignite the Make-a-Wish program to give their residents the opportunity to live out a dream of their own.

“The program is something that many communities have done that waxes and wanes,” Ms. Warden said. “Our catalyst came about a year ago, during a care plan meeting with Karen Hughes, one of our residents, who made the comment that she would love to go to a musical.”

Other retirement communities within the Diocese had supported similar programs in past years and Ms. Warden hopes that enthusiasm among Our Lady of Peace residents keeps the Make-a-Wish program active in their community. So far, six members have taken part in the program.

“It was something that seemed so simple but was so important to her that she didn’t have the money for. So, it was really just having a resident make a request that made us really excited about the program again,” she said.

The wishes are submitted to Life Enrichment Director Sherry Beverage and then brought to Our Lady of Peace management team. The wishes range anywhere from a limo ride to see the musical South Pacific to a cross-country plane trip to visit family, an opportunity that was fulfilled for resident Carolyn Walker, 83.

Mrs. Walker had not seen her oldest daughter, Maria, who lives in Bullhead City, AZ for 10 years. Her daughter was unable to travel due to illness, so Mrs. Walker submitted a wish to travel to Arizona for a visit.

“I was sitting in the lobby,” Mrs. Walker recalled. “Sara came out there and said, ‘you’re going to Arizona to see your daughter!’ I just started crying.”

She also took advantage of the nearby Colorado River to cool off during the hot June temperatures.

“When I decided that I would like to submit my wish to visit my daughter, you submit your wish to the activities director, and I said, ‘I would like to make a wish, and it’s sort of expensive and a bit extravagant,’” Mrs. Walker said. “And she said, ‘well, when you dream you dream big.’”

In fact, Our Lady of Peace residents are given only one requirement when they submit their wishes –  wish big. The planning committee works with local communities to apply discounts and donations to offset the costs so their residents can live out their wishes to the fullest.

“We haven’t had any wishes that we’re not able to grant,” Ms. Warden said. “The potential is there, but we’re confident that we can get creative to make anything happen.”

After hearing about the experiences Mrs. Corney, Mrs. Walker and other residents enjoyed, many other members of Our Lady of Peace are enthusiastic about submitting their own wishes this coming fall, Mrs. Corney said.

“Our staff are particularly understanding about trying to make people comfortable and happy and feel like this is their home,” Mrs. Corney said. “They’re here to serve, and they really do.”

For Ms. Warden, the residents’ excitement and anticipation of the wishes is the greatest part of living out the Make-a-Wish program.

“For some reason, they never think there’s any way we can make these wishes happen, so they are totally shocked and surprised when we do, which makes it the most rewarding part for us.”