For the past eight weeks, Gloria Jetter Crockett has been prepping herself to be tested in a way she never has been before.
The president and chief executive of Make-A-Wish Orange County and the Inland Empire is about to take the walk of a lifetime: a 28-mile hike along the portion of the Pacific Crest Trail that sits atop the rugged mountain peaks above Big Bear Lake.
“I’ve thought about it a lot—have I trained enough? Will I be able to complete the hike?” she says.
It’s the first such hike for Crockett, who became CEO in 2019. Previously, she’s spent years at other nonprofits, including the American Cancer Society and the Second Harvest Food Bank of Orange County.
She is committed—not for just herself, but also for the children who are awaiting their turn to have their wishes granted with the help of this hike, a major annual fundraiser for the group.
That’s the thought that comes to mind each day she pulls on her Danner boots, dons a Camelback, and sets out for a long training hike. Her efforts are all in preparation for a one-day endurance event that gives participants the opportunity to challenge themselves physically, mentally and philanthropically.
“The attitude is what’s really important,” she says. “The wish kids keep me going. I’m raising funds to help these kids get their wish—that’s what matters.”
Few activities embody the spirit of determination and commitment more than the Trailblaze Challenge, a Make-A-Wish signature fundraising event held by its chapters nationwide.
It first appeared in western North Carolina as a 24.1-mile fundraising hike along the Bartram Trail.
Each Make-A-Wish chapter creates its own version of the long-distance challenge. In the mid-Atlantic, participants hike a 26.6-mile journey along the picturesque mountains in western Maryland while in Oregon, the distance is just slightly shorter at 26.3 miles.
As well as being an extraordinary physical test, the challenging Trailblaze Challenge hikes raise essential funds to create life-changing wishes for children with critical illnesses.
Those who commit to the hikes must raise a minimum of $2,500 each, all of which is used to fulfill the organization’s driving mission: creating life-changing wishes for critically ill children.
Crockett says the event’s goal is for the event to raise $215,000.
“Plus,” Crockett adds, “This is something we can do during the pandemic. It’s outdoors. It’s a way to connect and bond and raise money safely.”
Dr. Joffre Olaya, a board member and CHOC contributing neurosurgeon, is joining the efforts as well.
“As physicians, we have seen the power of a wish firsthand in our patients and their families,” he says. “We are excited to do our part to make more wishes come true.”
Crockett has never been on a hike this long before. Her favorite hiking trip of her life—thus far—was a trip to Zion, saying “I had never seen so many stars in my life!”
She’ll be leading 26 hikers, including her husband, David, and daughter Sydney, on the hike, scheduled for Oct. 15. The group represents all skill levels, from novice to advanced outdoor enthusiasts.
Although she is leading as CEO, Crockett stresses that the actual hike will be led in partnership with trained professionals and fitness experts.
The specialized training program includes a workout calendar, training clinics that help participants learn trail essentials, hydration and nutrition, and weekly group hikes that steadily increase in distance and altitude.
One of the group’s most intensive training hikes was Mount Baldy, where participants learned firsthand what to expect when they tackle the Pacific Crest Trail—or PCT, as seasoned hikers call it— which has a minimum elevation of 6,791 feet and goes up to 7,808.
There is no limit on the number of people who can take part in the Trailblaze Challenge—the nonprofit’s website will be accepting applications up until two days before the event.
The Trailblaze Challenge weekend promises more than the opportunity to push oneself farther than they ever have before.
Hikers will arrive on the 10th, a Friday, and settle in at the The Lodge at Big Bear Lake- A Holiday Inn Resort. The next morning, they will arise before dawn, slip on their boots and headlamps, and set out.
Trail support, including hydration and nutrition, will be available at multiple locations throughout the journey, providing perhaps the most important sustenance of all—encouragement!
Following the hike—which is estimated to take an average of nine hours—the weary hikers will gather for a post-hike celebration to enjoy a meal and share stories.
Melissa Gallagher, vice president of mission delivery at the nonprofit, is back for her second Trailblaze Challenge, which was in 2019 since last year’s event was canceled due to COVID-19.
“It was such a memorable experience to complete the hike alongside our devoted community,” Gallagher says. “This year, I look forward to walking along the beautiful Pacific Crest Trail to raise funds in support of our resilient wish kids and families, who inspire me every day.”
For Crockett, the weeks of preparation have done more than get her in top hiking shape. They’ve also help refresh her perspective on the role we all play in helping others.
“Don’t wait for hope,” she says. “Create it. Ask yourself, what can I do to make a change in the world? Not just for Make-A-Wish, but in all things.
“We all have so much to give. What does that look like for each and every one of us?”
Granting a Wish in the Era of COVID
A trip to Disney World. Leading a hometown parade as a favorite superhero. Taking on the role of “police chief for a day” and putting the cuffs on a dastardly criminal. Rocking out on stage, just like a real rock star, in front of a live audience of your family and friends.
Up until March 2020, these were precisely the sort of wishes that many Make-A-Wish children asked for. With the help of supporters, Make-A-Wish was always at the ready, poised to fulfil nearly any request.
But when the pandemic and subsequent shutdowns hit America in early spring of 2020, Make-A-Wish had to pivot.
“We never stopped granting wishes,” said Gloria Jetter Crockett, president and CEO, Make-A-Wish Orange County and the Inland Empire.
In fact, since the pandemic began 18 months ago, the foundation has granted nearly 200 wishes.
Six-year-old Joshua, who was diagnosed in 2017 with acute lymphoblastic leukemia, had a simple wish, but one that proved challenging in a post-shutdown world.
He wanted to spend time at his favorite place, Dave & Buster’s. Prior to the pandemic, his family took him to the restaurant and arcade to celebrate after the completion of each cancer treatment.
When the pandemic hit, Joshua and his family could no longer spend time at the place he cherished.
The wish request didn’t faze wish-granters for long though. Though they could not re-open the doors for the young cancer patient, they could, perhaps, bring a bit of the Dave & Buster’s joy to him.
Working closely with the restaurant, which has been a long-time supporter of the organization, the foundation was able to procure Joshua’s favorite Dave & Buster’s arcade game, Luigi’s Mansion, to have as his very own.
In March, the representatives gathered at Joshua’s home to surprise him with a Luigi’s Mansion arcade game of his very own. Joshua was thrilled, shouting in delight as his family and friends applauded and offered up high-fives.
Granting a wish is about more than just giving an ill child something to distract them from their situation, Crocket said. Research shows children who have wishes granted build the physical and emotional strength needed to fight a critical illness. This can improve their quality of life and produce better health outcomes. “For many children, just knowing that a wish is coming helps keep them healthy,” she said. “It gives them something to look forward to.”
The era of COVID-19 has brought many changes.
But one thing it hasn’t changed is the group’s commitment to granting children the wishes that they hold most dear—even if that wish is granted in an entirely new way.
Celebrity meet-and-greets were replaced with one-on-one Zoom calls. Elaborate playsets have been installed in many backyards, much to the delight of the children—and their siblings—who get to enjoy them.
One Wish child was the recipient of an above-ground pool and a Hoyer lift to help him into it. In the heat of a late summer day, it was a wish the whole family enjoyed.