Melissa Arias, ’97, and Trina Cottingham, ’96, are on local Make-A-Wish leadership team.
When children with critical illnesses in Washington and Alaska make a wish, they turn to two alumni of the UW College of Arts and Sciences: Melissa Arias, ’97, and Trina Cottingham, ’96.
Arias and Cottingham are part of the executive team leading the local chapter of Make-A-Wish, the nonprofit that grants the wishes of children with critical illnesses. In their roles—Arias as president, CEO and “chief evangelist,” and Cottingham as vice president of wishes—they provide children living with critical illnesses an experience that transforms their lives and affects many others who rally around them to make wishes come true.
“A wish has tangible effects not only on a child’s mental and physical health,” Arias says, “but on their family—moms, dads, brothers, sisters and grandparents. And on the greater community that surrounds them, including volunteers and donors.”
Wish Kids, as they are called, have so much to worry about—not only their diagnosis but the implications of their health on parents and siblings. Arias says the wish-granting journey becomes a promising focal point, a much-needed distraction from worry, fear and frustration that provides hope and healing.
With more than 15 years of nonprofit experience, Arias is not only a dynamic communicator but a born collaborator who knows how to make things happen. She credits her UW degree in political science with expanding her social awareness and guiding her professional pursuits. “The UW was such an inspiring place,” she says. “It was that experience that put me on a path of a lifetime of service.” She worked as an attorney in private practice and served as director of development for the Domestic Abuse Women’s Network. Most recently, she was at UW Bothell, where she spent several years as associate vice chancellor for advancement and external relations.
“It’s inspiring and moving to see how selfless and pure of heart many of their wishes are.”
Melissa Arias, ’97
Arias continues to be amazed with how often a young person’s wish focuses on giving back to the community. Some kids have asked to renovate a local food bank or put together care packages for those in need. One remarkable Wish Kid even asked to create a video that helps children understand what it’s like to be diagnosed with cancer. “It’s inspiring and moving to see how selfless and pure of heart many of their wishes are,” she says.
Cottingham’s efforts as vice president of wishes don’t include carrying a wand or fairy dust but she creates smiles of amazement and wonder all the same. She joined Make-A-Wish in 1999 as a wish coordinator and has been honing her wish-granting skills ever since. She, too, appreciates her UW education, as she uses her psychology degree every day when working with families who are stressed, struggling and often in crisis. “Granting wishes takes a very special skill set that is a blend of excellent project management, creativity and relationship development. It’s all about creative problem-solving, because each wish child, their family, their medical condition and their wish are completely unique. Every wish is like an event with many moving parts and dozens, if not hundreds, of different people involved.”
Making wishes come true isn’t easy. Cottingham and her team delicately manage all kinds of details for every child and their family—including medical needs, dates, venues, personalities and transportation. The time to plan these one-of-a-kind experiences can range from months to weeks to even days depending upon the complexity of the child’s condition, the type of wish and myriad other dynamics.
How does it all happen? Dedicated volunteers, and lots of them. Cottingham’s team works with more than 700 volunteers—many of whom are UW students, parents and alumni—who are essential throughout the entire wish-granting process. They help with everything from working with the wish child to understand their most heartfelt desire for a wish to working with the Make-A-Wish staff to determine the plan for the wish, to keeping the child and family informed and engaged throughout the process.
This work is crucial to the success of the organization. It requires Cottingham to keep an eye on both the strategic and tactical aspects of relationship development, staff supervision and board support, all while managing $5 million in cash and in-kind wish-granting budgets. No small feat, but the perfect job for her. “I love that no matter how good or bad my day is,” she says, “I get to spend it doing something good for someone else. I have the privilege of touching every single wish we grant at some point in the process.”
For more information about Make-A-Wish Alaska and Washington, go to akwa.wish.org.