Native takes new role at Make-A-Wish

Published 1:01 am Saturday, October 10, 2015

Andalusia native Valerie Cunningham Gerber loves making a difference.

Making a difference has taken her many places along the way, but her most recent venue is through the Make-A-Wish program.

1010-ValerieGerber was recently named director of development and marketing for the non-profit that grants wishes to children with life-threatening medical conditions.

“I am thrilled to join the incredible team that is in place at Make-A-Wish Alabama as we work together to grant the one true wish of every eligible child in Alabama,” she said.

Gerber earned a bachelor’s degree in English from Auburn and became an English teacher.

Along the way, her passions changed when she joined Team in Training, the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society’s fundraising and marathon program, and fell in love with raising money and awareness for causes that are important to her.

“When I moved to Birmingham, I began looking for a career where my passions for writing, fundraising, storytelling and creative design would be put to use,” she said. “I’ve been working in development positions for non-profits in the Birmingham area and loving my work every day ever since. I spend most of my professional energy meeting and communicating with donors, writing grants and planning events.”

Gerber said before learning more about Make-A-Wish, she had some misconceptions about the organization.

“One thing I didn’t always know about Make-A-Wish Alabama is that Alabama dollars grant Alabama wishes,” she said. “For years, I thought that the celebrities meeting the kids were probably footing the bill or that Oprah or Bill Gates had it covered. So it was really eye-opening for me to learn that each chapter, while operating with tremendous resources that come with a national brand, is actually just like very other local nonprofit you may already know. Your donations grant the wishes of your neighbors and friends and family.”

Gerber said a lot of times, people think that all children are terminal and only have certain amount of time to live.

“And for many of our wish kids, that is actually true,” she said. “But the majority of our kids are fighting their illnesses and doing so successfully. What these kids endure is years of pain and fear – time that is supposed to be spent running carefree on playgrounds and eating cupcakes at birthday parties.

“I have two daughters and their biggest question of the day sometimes is if we can have chocolate lava cakes as dessert when we get takeout pizza,” she said. “My 2.5-year-old spends hours in her Elsa costume jumping from our coffee table to our couch and belting out ‘Let it Go’ a little off-key.”

Gerber said that most wish kids don’t have that kind of life.

“And their illnesses affect their entire families,” she said. “Siblings have to take a backseat. Even though they are not sick, they spend enormous amounts of time in hospitals and doctor’s offices. They can’t participate in extracurricular activities because finances are strapped and because soccer practice isn’t a priority when your little sister can’t stop throwing up from her chemo treatment or your little brother’s seizure just lasted a full five minutes and he has to be rushed to the emergency room.”

Gerber said to some it may seem like a four-day trip to Disney World or getting a new laptop is just a Band-Aid on the wounds of children facing illness.

“But there is something mighty about a wish, and you can never underestimate the real power of hope,” she said. “While trips and presents can’t make up for all the needle sticks and time missed at the park, the anticipation of something actually good on the horizon can be a game changer.

“If you are a planner like me, it is easy to understand how much fun even the process of dreaming and deciding on a wish is,” she said. “And once a wish is determined, wish kids and their families get to spend time driving to and from doctor appointment talking about their upcoming adventure instead of the fear and stress involving the life-limiting medical condition.” Gerber said she met her first wish kid this past week at a wish reveal.

“A 13-year-old, Anna, who is going on a Disney Cruise, was princess for the day and was showered with flowers, candy and a pink and purple feather boa,” she said. “The smile she had plastered on her face all day was all it took to dry the tears in my eyes as I left myself think about all that she had her family had endured.”

Gerber said she knows this is just the beginning.

“I know that my job as director development and marketing at Make-A-Wish Alabama is going to be filled with many more smiles and many more tears, and I am looking forward to doing absolutely everything within my power to further this incredible mission of imparting hope, strength and joy to all the wish kids and their families.”