In 2009, when Justin Winters was 16 years old, he was diagnosed with leukemia. He spent days at a time in the hospital, unable to interact with anyone except his mom and his medical team. “I missed 87 days of school,” he explained. “I was supposed to be taking girls to the school dances and getting my driver’s license. I couldn’t do any of that.”
A Pennsylvania native, Justin grew up watching the Atlanta Falcons every Sunday. Sometimes he and his mom attended games in Atlanta or traveled to away games. He recalls those games fondly, but always sat in the “nosebleed” section.
When he met his volunteers from Make-A-Wish at the end of his treatment, Justin immediately knew that his wish would be to see the Falcons at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta. He thought he was just going to the game, but his expectations were blown away. On the day before the game, Justin was able to go to the Falcons’ practice. “I met all of the guys, coaches and their trainers. The players signed helmets and jerseys for me. I still have them today!” he laughed.
On game day, to Justin’s surprise, he was treated like a VIP. He got to go onto the field and talk to all of the players again. “They all remembered my name,” he explained. “It made me feel so special. I got to do something that not a lot of people get to do.” Justin, his mom, and his cousin sat on the 50-yard line only three or four rows up, alongside the players’ families.
Justin believes that his wish changed his outlook on life. Today, he is a Wish Assist Coordinator at Make-A-Wish Metro and Western New York. After his wish was granted, he knew he had to work at Make-A-Wish one day. “I don’t think I could choose a job that would make me happier. I know exactly what these kids are going through.” Justin helps to grant the wishes of children from around the globe who wish to come to New York City. Some wish to meet the New York Yankees, see a Broadway show, visit their favorite TV show, meet a celebrity or just explore The Big Apple.
“If I have to call 50 people to make sure a kid’s wish comes true, I will,” Justin explained. “I want to make sure the wish meets the kid’s expectation. I know that what they’re going through is hard, not only for the wish kid, but for their family. I want to help bring them together.”
Justin reflects on the time before his wish was granted. Because he was out of school and because his weakened immune system prevented him from being around other people, he spent almost all of his time with his mom. He remembers them fighting, her missing work, and their relationship taking a toll. “My wish trip revitalized our relationship,” he explained. “It helped us work through what we were struggling with. Now we watch all of the games together again. It brought us together and we can never lose that experience.”
Today, Justin loves being a part of bringing families together through wishes just like it was for him. “I’ve been there and am so appreciative of the impact that my wish had on me and my mom. Now I get to make an impact on families’ lives every day.”