Make-a-Wish Montana will make local teenager’s dream come true

Thursday, March 7, 2019

Submitted photo

Zak Clifton stands beside his bump ‘n run car. Clifton is passionate about cars and racing and suffers from a rare and serious genetic disease.

Zak Clifton is a normal 16 year old in almost every way. He has a passion for vehicles in every aspect – from driving them to bringing them back from the dead and even racing them. Last year, Clifton participated in over eight “bump and run” races, and finished fourth place, winning some prize money. He also enjoys football and playing Xbox Madden games.

But Clifton also has a rare genetic mutation called Familial Adenomatous Polyposis or FAP syndrome. The condition can be fatal if not properly treated. The challenges of the disease are many. He has to undergo regular colonoscopies and faces an eventual colectomy.

Due to Zak’s condition, his mom, Heather Denning, reached out to Makea-Wish Montana after she learned Zak would be eligible through a Facebook group she follows.

“It’s not just for terminal kids,” Denning explained. “It’s for kids with life threatening illness.”

The foundation quickly responded to Denning’s request. Zak’s wish? Even with his extreme interest in cars, his enthusiasm for football and desire to make family part of his wish prevailed.

Zak wanted to meet the Green Bay Packers and attend one of their games against the Vikings.

“What made me pick it is that it would be a fun trip, and I’d get to spend some good family time. My brother’s a big Packers fan too. So that inspired me to go to the packers,” Clifton said, adding that the Packers have been his favorite ever since he discovered football around the age of five.

The date of Clifton’s trip to Wisconsin isn’t set yet, but he was more than happy to lay out the itinerary.

“I get to meet Aaron Rodgers and the whole team,” Clifton said. “We get to watch them practice the day before the game and go to dinner with Aaron Rodgers and we get to ride in a limo around Wisconsin.”

As far as logistics go, Make-a-Wish covers the expenses, all of which are raised through charity. Clifton is also incredibly lucky to make it onto the list, as Make-a-Wish Montana is able to service about only 40 wishes a year.

“Our mission is to grant the wish of every eligible child,” Susan Cuff, Makea-Wish Montana’s operations coordinator said. “We have about 50 kids in the pipeline waiting for a wish.”

The Make a Wish Foundation of Montana was created in 1987 and became fully independent in 2015. This independence means that “the money we raise here in Montana is for Montana kids,” said the foundation’s CEO Douglas Koester, who explained that fundraising takes a lot of effort.

“Wishes are awesome, life changing, but they’re not cheap,” Koester said. “The biggest challenge we face is raising enough funds to do wishes.”

The average cost for each wish is $10,000. Usually $7000 is needed to be raised and the rest can be covered “in kind” through charitable actions like hotels giving free accommodations or organizations like Disney that offer discounts to Make-a-Wish recipients, he said.

Most of this money, according to Koester, is raised through individual donations, but there are a variety of corporate sponsorships, grants, and other forms of charity that contribute. Make a Wish also hosts a few events in Montana, namely the Walk for Wishes, which takes place in Missoula.

A second walk was recently added.

“We will have our first Walk for Wishes in Billings (this year),” Koester said.

Koester have also employed some more creative and social media oriented methods of fundraising as well.

“We have a fundraising event with Montana Beardies. It’s basically bearded people putting photos of themselves up and getting people to vote on them with donations,” he said.

As for Clifton’s future plans, he wants to follow his passion for vehicles, and hopes to get his commercial driver’s license after high school. “(After I’m) 21 I want to become a truck driver and haul stuff around the country.”

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