New Paltz duo raise more than $1 million for Make-A-Wish Hudson Valley

Debbie Cuney Flynn and Cathy Sifre. (Photo by Lauren Thomas)

Debbie Cuney Flynn and Cathy Sifre are sisters-in-law, best friends and “wish partners,” as volunteer wish granters with Make-A-Wish Hudson Valley. In 2004, the two began hosting an annual event to raise money toward granting wishes for children in the region with life-threatening medical conditions. Over the years, their fundraiser has brought in more than $950,000. On Thursday, September 20, they held their 15th event, raising $100,250, making the grand total they’ve raised more than $1 million.

“The community has been so generous,” says Sifre. “We really have to give a shout-out to them; they’re the ones who have contributed this money. And our guest list hasn’t varied much over the 15 years; we have a local support group that just says, ‘I’ll be there,’ every time. It’s wonderful how the support has been so constant. I also think that with Debbie and I being wish granters and involved with this for so long, people do trust us, and they know the money that’s raised is staying here in the Hudson Valley.” 

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The evening hosted at Crested Hen Farms in High Falls included a silent auction and raffle, the proceeds from which contributed to the total raised along with the ticket price paid by attendees and sponsorship by local businesses.

The sisters-in-law both live in New Paltz. Flynn is from New York City originally but moved here 38 years ago. Sifre is a New Jersey native who moved to New Paltz when she married Debbie’s brother George. The pair began volunteering for Make-A-Wish Hudson Valley 17 years ago, moved by what their niece told them about her experiences volunteering with the organization in New York City. “She would tell us these emotional and inspiring stories,” says Flynn. “We decided to get involved, but locally in our own community.”

The initial plan as volunteers was to help raise awareness of Make-A-Wish in the Hudson Valley. A year later, the two became volunteer “wish granters,” working directly with the children and their families, launching their first fundraiser the following year to help with the cost of fulfilling wishes.

The 2004 fundraiser was held at the Culinary Institute of America’s Ristorante Caterina de’ Medici. The guest list included 150 people, which is approximately what it remains today. The goal was to raise $25,000, but when the event brought in $61,000, it sparked a repeat of the event the following year and every year since. The party remained at the CIA for seven years, as a formal sit-down dinner with waiter service by the culinary school students, but these days it’s a more informal event, where people can mingle.

Two years ago Sifre and Flynn joined the board of directors for Make-A-Wish Hudson Valley. That became the “third leaf of the clover” for them within the organization, Flynn says, the third role they took on in addition to volunteer and wish granter. Sadly, the “fourth clover” was forced on them earlier this year when they lost their one-year-old nephew to cancer. “Make-A-Wish has gotten to us at every level, now,” she adds.

The pair are affectionately known by their colleagues as “Debbie-Cathy” or “Cathy-Debbie” because they always work together. When they first started volunteering as wish granters, they told the organization they had one stipulation to do so. “We told them we had to be partnered on every wish,” says Flynn. “Because the organization requires you to work in pairs, and you could be paired with other people, and we wanted to work together.” 

The philosophy behind the rule of working in teams, according to the Make-A-Wish website, is that “a two or three-person team provides a good support network when working on wishes. If one volunteer is busy, the other one can pick up the slack. And in emotional situations, it’s good to have a wish partner to lean on. [And] working in teams helps to protect volunteers from potential accusations of impropriety.” 

The work of a wish granter can involve multiple visits with the family to make sure the wish is something they’ve considered carefully. “Sometimes we get it in one visit, and the children absolutely know what they want,” explains Sifre. “Sometimes we need to go back three or four times to get to what we call ‘the heart of the wish,’ to make sure it’s something they’ve really thought about, that they really want.”

Children with a life-threatening medical condition, certified by a doctor, can be recommended to Make-A-Wish by anyone. Those who qualify to receive a wish are not necessarily in a terminal situation; many wish children go on to survive their illnesses and thrive. But the wish can get them through the tough times.

“For a majority of our wish kids, a wish serves as a catalyst to better health,” Flynn and Sifre say. “When a wish comes true, it creates strength, hope and transformation.”

Children eligible to receive a wish are between the ages of two-and-a-half and 18, and have never had a wish granted before by a wish-granting agency. Once a child qualifies, Sifre and Flynn choose which wishes they want to work on, generally choosing families who live closer than a 45-minute drive away. Once the wish is assigned to them, they meet the families. And they work on more than one wish at a time; the pair currently have five wishes they’re occupied with fulfilling. 

Make-A-Wish Hudson Valley, headquartered in Tarrytown, works with families in the eight New York counties of Ulster, Dutchess, Orange, Putnam, Sullivan, Delaware, Rockland and Westchester. The chapter has fulfilled more than 2,700 wishes since its inception in 1986. In 2018, the organization expects to grant 120 wishes in the area, each with an average cost of $7,500 to $10,000 to fulfill.

Among the Hudson Valley chapter’s recently completed wishes are family trips to Hawaii, Disney World and the Major League Baseball All-Star game. Wishes generally fall into the categories of “I wish to go,” “I wish to meet,” “I wish to have” and “I wish to be.” Local children from our region have had the opportunity through Make-A-Wish to be a firefighter, police officer or pop star for the day; have a sweet-16 party, a puppy, or an outdoor playset; and have met Arnold Schwarzenegger, dancer Julianne Hough and motocross champion Travis Pastrana.

Flynn and Sifre plan to host the annual fundraiser again next year, made possible by a number of sponsors that include Crested Hen Farms, Maxi Fuxjager Foundation, Richard Rowley and Marianne Murray, Seakill Custom Home Builders, Kimlin Propane and Hill-N-Dale Abstractors, Inc. 

For more information about Make-A-Wish Hudson Valley, call (914) 478-9474 or e-mail hudson@hudson.wish.org.

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