A dream come true: Family’s experience with Make-a-Wish inspires Carmel woman’s passion for job with the nonprofit

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By Michelle Williams

Although many people have been impacted by the Make-A-Wish Foundation, Carmel resident Kelsey Leichtnam is the nonprofit’s only employee in Indiana who has experienced a granted wish first-hand. Working as development officer, Leichtnam brings a heightened level of advocacy thanks to her family’s personal experience.

Leichtnam’s brother, McKenzie, was born in 1990 with hypoplastic left heart syndrome, and he received a heart transplant at 13 days old. Although his heart condition was never classified as terminal, McKenzie’s doctor referred him to Make-a-Wish when the organization opened its mission to include children with a life-threatening health status. McKenzie was granted a wish to see the Boston Red Sox in the World Series with his parents and sister in 2004.

Tragedy struck the Leichtnam family in 2011 when McKenzie unexpectedly passed away. Leichtnam had been working an internship in Wisconsin to finish up her undergraduate degree from Indiana University when the news came.

Although she was far from home, Leichtnam wanted to do something that would honor her brother’s life.

“My parents raised us to give back and have a spirit of paying it forward,” she said. “I think it would have been so cool for McKenzie to be able to give another child or children the experience we were able to have.”

In 2012, Leichtnam organized the first of a series of four annual golf tournaments in McKenzie’s honor. They called it “Golf for Kenz,” and the family chose to benefit Make-a-Wish with a goal of reaching the Giving Society level by donating $100,000.

“She has so much drive and ambition, and she wants to do something that’s greater than herself. We picked up on that right away,” said Juli Miller, vice president of development for Make-a-Wish. Soon after the first golf outing in 2012, Miller reached out to Leichtnam with a job offer.

“I knew that this would have been my dream job, but I think I was too emotional at the time and too scatterbrained to really seek it out. So I was really fortunate that it sought me out,” Leichtnam said. “It was kind of an ‘all stars aligning’ moment. They knew that I had wanted to move home, but they didn’t realize that I was physically packing up.”

Even after starting her job at the foundation, Leichtnam continued serving in a volunteer role. By 2015, she raised more than $100,000 through the Golf for Kenz event – achieving the family’s original goal. The event is set to be inducted into the Giving Society at the foundation’s BIG Wish Gala April 22.

Leichtnam said she enjoys working with people in the community who want to make a difference.

“It’s always amazing to me the web that Make-A-Wish weaves. Either somebody knows of a child that had a wish granted, or they were a part of a wish being granted. Maybe they sat on an airplane where a child was going on their wish trip. It’s just really neat to hear those stories and see how everyone can truly be connected to our mission,” Leichtnam said. “That never gets old.”

Leichtnam’s personal tie to the organization has gone a long way in helping her succeed in her role with Make-A-Wish.

“The biggest asset that Kelsey has is the ability to build relationships and connections that really provide this network – and people feel like they’re part of the Make-A-Wish community,” Miller said.

Big Wish Gala Apr. 22

Former Indianapolis Colts tight end Dallas Clark will host the Indianapolis BIG Wish Gala at the JW Marriott April 22. The evening will include a sit-down dinner, a live and silent auction and inspirational stories from children and families whose lives have been impacted by a granted wish. Those wishing to attend the event, become a sponsor, or donate funds or auction items may contact Kelsey Leichtnam at 317-522-4082.

Walk for Wishes June 25

The 11th annual Walk for Wishes in Indianapolis will take place June 25 at the NCAA Hall of Champions. Participants in the family-friendly event may choose a 1- or 3-mile walk followed by a finish line celebration with music, food and more. Visit http://oki.wish.org/ for more information or to register.

Meet Kelsey Leichtnam

Favorite pastime: Road trips with my family

Favorite local restaurant: Rosie’s Place

Favorite color: Navy blue

Age: 27

Birthplace: Indianapolis

Favorite vacation spot: Pacific Grove, Calif. and Hilton Head Island, S.C.

Place of worship: Northview Church in Carmel

What kind of car do you drive: Kia Sorento

Most DVR’d TV show: Real Housewives of Beverly Hills and HGTV’s Fixer Upper

Favorite quote: Be the change you wish to see in the world

Motto to live by: “Pay it forward.”

Early morning riser or night owl?: Night owl, but trying to be more of an early morning riser!

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