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Make-A-Wish: Turning Kids Into Superheroes, Ice Cream Men & More

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The Make-A-Wish Foundation has granted nearly 200,000 wishes to children with life-threatening medical conditions. From the first wish—making a 7-year-old boy with leukemia a police officer for a day—through countless family vacations and celebrity meetups, the foundation has provided all sorts of joy for seriously ill children and their families. Here is just a handful of wishes the foundation has fulfilled in recent years.

1. Superhero for a Day

This April, the Make-A-Wish Foundation granted an unusual wish to 13-year-old Erik Martin: it turned him into a superhero for a day. The Seattle boy transformed into his super secret identity, Electron Boy, to help Spider-Man with a dangerous mission. Nefarious supervillains Dr. Dark and Blackout Boy had imprisoned Major League Soccer's Seattle Sounders at Qwest Field, and only Electron Boy could use his powers to save them. After pulling on his red-and-blue costume, Electron Boy rushed to the stadium in a DeLorean driven by his trusty sidekick, Moonshine Maid, and rescued the team while his family and friends looked on and cheered.

After Electron Boy saved the team, the soccer players congratulated him and gave him his own jersey. As a sign of Seattle's gratitude, the city council gave him a key to the city while declaring it Electron Boy Day. Electron Boy, for his part, smiled for the TV cameras and flexed his muscles. The Electron Boy comic book was created by Ken Christiansen.

Such an elaborate wish certainly wasn't easy to pull off, but it really cheered up Erik Martin. His older sister told the Seattle Times, "He's over the moon. This is definitely beyond anything we thought it would be."

2. A Management Job in the Ice Cream Business

What kid hasn't considered the endless possibilities of becoming an ice cream man? You would have access to an unlimited supply of frozen treats! Five-year-old Robin had a much more sophisticated view of things, though. He didn't just want to be an ice cream man. When the Make-A-Wish Foundation asked Robin to make a wish, he asked, "Can you make me the boss of the ice cream man?"

Pretty sharp little guy. Robin figured that if the ice cream man worked for him, he could send down orders to give everyone free ice cream, even the kids in his neighborhood who sometimes couldn't afford a treat.
The Make-A-Wish folks made it happen. Robin got his own cap that said "Ice Cream Man," and he rode around the neighborhood with his normal ice cream man, taking orders from his chums and making sure that all of the frozen snacks were on the house.

3. Quality Time with Elmo

Like a lot of three-year-olds, Amanda is obsessed with Elmo. Sadly, though, Amanda is sick with a form of cancer that affects her liver. According to her parents, she spent all of her time in the hospital watching Elmo, playing with Elmo, or talking about Elmo, so when it came time to grant the Michigan girl a wish, the choice was easy: she had to meet Elmo.

Kevin Clash, the "muppeteer" who plays Elmo, canceled a previous engagement and flew to Michigan so Amanda could meet her favorite furry red monster. Amanda was understandably delighted, and the pair danced, sang songs, and laughed for an hour and a half. Make-A-Wish even shot a video of Amanda and Elmo playing together. Fair warning: it's so sweet that it will make you cry.

4. A Spot in the NFL Draft

Fifteen-year-old Zach Hatfield is a die-hard Pittsburgh Steelers fan who was diagnosed with leukemia last August. While many kids ask to meet their favorite team, Zach had a different request: he wanted to announce the Steelers' first-round pick in the 2010 NFL Draft. Thanks to the Make-A-Wish Foundation, Zach got to travel to Radio City Music Hall in April and announce on national TV that the Steelers had used the 18th pick in the draft on Florida center Maurkice Pouncey.

While Zach did a commendable job of announcing the Steelers' pick, he kept trying to help the team throughout the evening. He told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that when he met NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell he asked for a second wish, "So, do you think maybe you could unsuspend Ben Roethlisberger?" According to Zach, not even the Make-A-Wish Foundation can help the embattled quarterback; the commish just smiled and said, "I don't think we can do that."

5. Taking Kids Camping

If you offer to fulfill a kid's craziest wish, how many of them would choose to use it on other people? That's what 17-year-old Rankin, a Tennessee boy, did a few years ago. When the Make-A-Wish Foundation gave Rankin carte blanche to make one of his whims come true, he asked for a weekend camping trip for the children he tutored after school. Rankin had been tutoring younger kids from Chattanooga in his free time, and he wanted for them to get a chance to have a fun outdoor experience.

The Make-A-Wish Foundation was happy to make Rankin's unselfish dream a reality. They sent Rankin and his young pupils for an action-packed weekend of hiking, playing ball, and climbing walls at an Alabama summer camp.

6. Meeting Dwight Schrute

Even if you're a fan of The Office, the Scranton branch of Dunder Mifflin is probably the last place you'd want to visit. Sixteen-year-old Anna disagreed, though. The North Carolina teen wanted nothing more than to visit the set of the hit NBC sitcom, so she made a trip to California to meet the stars. Anna later told the Make-A-Wish Foundation's website that Steve Carrell broke out of his Michael Scott character and was "down to earth and normal" with her, while she really hit it off with B.J. Novak—he plays Ryan Howard on the show—and continued to exchange letters with him after returning home.
* * * * * *
To learn more about Make-A-Wish, visit wish.org.

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10 Regional Twists on Trick-or-Treating
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Walk around any given American neighborhood on the night of October 31, and you’ll likely hear choruses of "trick-or-treat" chiming through the area. The sing-songy phrase is synonymous with Halloween in some parts of the world, but it's not the only way kids get sweets from their neighbors this time of year. From the Philippines to the American Midwest, here are some regional door-to-door traditions you may not have heard of.

1. PANGANGALULUWA // THE PHILIPPINES

Rice cakes wrapped in leaves.
Suman

The earliest form of trick-or-treating on Halloween can be traced back to Europe in the Middle Ages. Kids would don costumes and go door-to-door offering prayers for dead relatives in exchange for snacks called "soul cakes." When the cake was eaten, tradition held that a soul was ferried from purgatory into heaven. Souling has disappeared from Ireland and the UK, but a version of it lives on halfway across the world in the Philippines. During All Saints Day on November 1, Filipino children taking part in Pangangaluluwa will visit local houses and sing hymns for alms. The songs often relate to souls in purgatory, and carolers will play the part of the souls by asking for prayers. Kids are sometimes given rice cakes called suman, a callback to the soul cakes from centuries past.

2. PÃO-POR-DEUS // PORTUGAL

Raw dough.
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Instead of trick-or-treating, kids in Portugal go door-to-door saying pão-por-deus ("bread for god") in exchange for goodies on All Saints Day. Some homeowners give out money or candy, while others offer actual baked goods.

3. HALLOWEEN APPLES // WESTERN CANADA

Kids trick-or-treating.
iStock

If they're not calling out "trick-or-treat" on their neighbors’ doorsteps on Halloween night, you may hear children in western Canada saying "Halloween apples!" The phrase is left over from a time when apples were a common Halloween treat and giving out loose items on the holiday wasn't considered taboo.

4. ST. MARTIN'S DAY // THE NETHERLANDS

The Dutch wait several days after Halloween to do their own take on trick-or-treating. On the night of November 11, St. Martin's Day, children in the Netherlands take to the streets with their homemade lanterns in hand. These lanterns were traditionally carved from beets or turnips, but today they’re most commonly made from paper. And the kids who partake don’t get away with shouting a few words at each home they visit—they’re expected to sing songs to receive their sugary rewards.

5. A PENNY FOR THE GUY // THE UK

Guy Fawkes Night celebration.

Peter Trimming, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.0

Guy Fawkes Night is seen by some as the English Protestants’ answer to the Catholic holidays associated with Halloween, so it makes sense that it has its own spin on trick-or-treating. November 5 marks the day of Guy Fawkes’s failed assassination attempt on King James as part of the Gunpowder Plot. To celebrate the occasion, children will tour the neighborhood asking for "a penny for the guy." Sometimes they’ll carry pictures of the would-be-assassin which are burned in the bonfires lit later at night.

6. TRICKS FOR TREATS // ST. LOUIS, MISSOURI

Kids knocking on a door in costume.
iStock

If kids in the St. Louis area hope to go home with a full bag of candy on Halloween, they must be willing to tickle some funny bones. Saying "tricks-for-treats" followed by a joke replaces the classic trick-or-treat mantra in this Midwestern city. There’s no criteria for the quality or the subject of the joke, but spooky material (What’s a skeleton’s favorite instrument? The trombone!) earns brownie points.

7. ME DA PARA MI CALAVERITA // MEXICO

Sugar skulls with decoration.
iStock

While Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is completely separate from Halloween, the two holidays share a few things in common. Mexicans celebrate the day by dressing up, eating sweet treats, and in some parts of the country, going house-to-house. Children knocking on doors will say "me da para mi calaverita" or "give me money for my little skull," a reference to the decorated sugar skulls sold in markets at this time of year.

8. HALLOWEEN! // QUEBEC, CANADA

Kids dressed up for Halloween.
iStock

Trick-or-treaters like to keep things simple in the Canadian province of Quebec. In place of the alliterative exclamation, they shout “Halloween!” at each home they visit. Adults local to the area might remember saying "la charité s’il-vous-plaît "(French for “charity, please”) when going door-to-door on Halloween, but this saying has largely fallen out of fashion.

9. SWEET OR SOUR // GERMANY

Little girl trick-or-treating.
iStock

Halloween is only just beginning to gain popularity in Germany. Where it is celebrated, the holiday looks a lot like it does in America, but Germans have managed to inject some local character into their version of trick-or-treat. In exchange for candy, kids sometimes sing out "süß oder saures"—or "sweet and sour" in English.

10. TRIQUI, TRIQUI HALLOWEEN // COLOMBIA

Kids dressed up for Halloween.
Rubí Flórez, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Kids in Colombia anticipate dressing up and prowling the streets on Halloween just as much as kids do in the States. There are a few significant variations on the annual tradition: Instead of visiting private residencies, they're more likely to ask for candy from store owners and the security guards of apartment buildings. And instead of saying trick-or-treat, they recite this Spanish rhyme:

Triqui triqui Halloween
Quiero dulces para mí
Si no hay dulces para mí
Se le crece la naríz

In short, it means that if the grownups don't give the kids the candy they're asking for, their noses will grow. Tricky, tricky indeed

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Hey, Vern: It's the Ernest P. Worrell Story
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Mill Creek Entertainment

In her review of the 1991 children’s comedy Ernest Scared Stupid, The Washington Post film critic Rita Kempley described the titular character, the dim-witted but well-meaning Ernest P. Worrell, as “the global village idiot.” As portrayed by Kentucky native Jim Varney, Ernest was in the middle of a 10-film franchise that would see him mistakenly incarcerated (Ernest Goes to Jail), enlisting in the military (Ernest in the Army), substituting for an injured Santa (Ernest Saves Christmas), and returning to formal education in order to receive his high school diploma (Ernest Goes to School).

Unlike slapstick contemporaries Yahoo Serious and Pauly Shore, Varney took a far more unusual route to film stardom. With advertising executive John Cherry III, Varney originated the Ernest character in a series of regional television commercials. By one estimate, Ernest appeared in over 6000 spots, hawking everything from ice cream to used cars. They grew so popular that the pitchman had a 20,000-member fan club before his first movie, 1987’s Ernest Goes to Camp, was even released.

Varney and Ernest became synonymous, so much so that the actor would dread going on dates for fear Ernest fans would approach him; he sometimes wore disguises to discourage recognition. Though he could recite Shakespeare on a whim, Varney was rarely afforded the opportunity to expand his resume beyond the denim-jacketed character. It was for this reason that Varney, though grateful for Ernest’s popularity, would sometimes describe his notoriety as a “mixed blessing,” one that would come to a poignant end foreshadowed by one of his earliest commercials.

Born in Lexington, Kentucky in 1949, Varney spent his youth being reprimanded by teachers who thought his interest in theater shouldn’t replace attention paid to math or science. Varney disagreed, leaving high school just two weeks shy of graduation (he returned in the fall for his diploma) to head for New York with $65 in cash and a plan to perform.

The off-Broadway plays Varney appeared in were not lucrative, and he began to bounce back and forth between Kentucky and California, driving a truck when times were lean and appearing in TV shows like Petticoat Junction when his luck improved. During one of his sabbaticals from Hollywood, he met Cherry, who cast him as an aggressive military instructor named Sergeant Glory in an ad for a car dealer in Nashville, Tennessee.

In 1981, Varney was asked back to film a new spot for Cherry, this one for a dilapidated amusement park in Bowling Green, Kentucky, that Cherry considered so unimpressive he didn’t want to show it on camera. Instead, he created the character of Ernest P. Worrell, a fast-talking, often imbecilic local who is constantly harassing his neighbor Vern. (“Know what I mean, Vern?” became Ernest’s catchphrase.)

The spot was a hit, and soon Varney and Cherry were being asked to film spots for Purity Dairies, pizza parlors, convenience stores, and other local businesses. In the spots, Ernest would usually look into the camera—the audience shared Vern’s point of view—and endorse whatever business had enlisted his services, usually stopping only when Vern devised a way to get him out of sight.

Although the Purity commercials initially drew complaints—the wide-angle lens created a looming Ernest that scared some children—his fame grew, and Varney became a rarity in the ad business: a mascot without a permanent corporate home. He and Cherry would film up to 26 spots in a day, all targeted for a specific region of the country. In some areas, people would call television stations asking when the next Ernest spot was due to air. A Fairfax, Virginia Toyota dealership saw a 50 percent spike in sales after Varney began appearing in ads.

Logging thousands of spots in hundreds of markets, Varney once said that if they had all been national, he and Cherry would have been wealthy beyond belief. But local spots had local budgets, and the occasions where Ernest was recruited for a major campaign were sometimes prohibited by exclusivity contracts: He and Cherry had to turn down Chevrolet due to agreements with local, competing car dealers.

Still, Varney made enough to buy a 10-acre home in Kentucky, expressing satisfaction with the reception of the Ernest character and happily agreeing to a four-picture deal with Disney’s Touchstone Pictures for a series of Ernest features. Released on a near-constant basis between 1987 and 1998, the films were modest hits (Ernest Goes to Camp made $28 million) before Cherry—who directed several of them—and Varney decided to strike out on their own, settling into a direct-to-video distribution model.

“It's like Oz, and the Wizard ain't home," Varney told the Sun Sentinel in 1985, anticipating his desire for autonomy. “Hollywood is a place where everything begins but nothing originates. It's this big bunch of egos slamming into each other.”

Varney was sometimes reticent to admit he had ambitions beyond Ernest, believing his love of Shakespeare and desire to perform Hamlet would be perceived as the cliched story of a clown longing to be serious. He appeared in 1994’s The Beverly Hillbillies and as the voice of Slinky Dog in 1995’s Toy Story. But Ernest would continue to be his trademark.

The movies continued through 1998, at which point Varney noticed a nagging cough. It turned out to be lung cancer. As Ernest, Varney had filmed an anti-smoking public service announcement in the 1980s. In his private life, he was a chain smoker. He succumbed to cancer in 2000 at the age of 50, halting a series of planned Ernest projects that included Ernest Goes to Space and Ernest and the Voodoo Curse.

Varney may never have gotten an opportunity to perform in a wider variety of roles, but he did receive some acknowledgment for the one he had mastered. In 1989, Varney took home an Emmy for Outstanding Performer in a children’s series, a CBS Saturday morning show titled Hey, Vern: It’s Ernest!

“It’s a blessing and a curse,” he told the Orlando Sentinel in 1991, “because it's as hard to escape from it as it is to get into it.''

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