MAYVILLE - Aili Makuch loves horses, especially her best friend Cosmo, and thanks to Make-A-Wish Foundation, she now has a Breyer Horse re-creation of her beloved animal.
Aili, a Mayville native and Chautauqua Lake Central School senior, was diagnosed with pediatric kidney cancer in 2012, and her struggle with the life-threatening illness made her eligible to become a Wish Kid. So, this August, wish granters Jerry and Gina came to Aili's house to pick her up in a limo and take her to Breyer Animal Creations in New Jersey for a tour of the facility where she would receive a model re-creation of her horse Cosmo.
Aili, who has been riding for more than seven years, has always had a passion for horses, she said.
Aili Makuch's family, Bill and Sandra, and friend, Emily Connor, pose outside the Breyer's corporate offices before a tour.
"I've had Cosmo, which is short for Cosmopolitan, for almost four years - he is my best friend," Aili said. "He can often read my mind, and will do something for me while we're riding before I even ask."
According to Aili, the model is the perfect addition to her collection of Breyer Horses that she has at home in what she calls "Horse Land."
"Make-A-Wish has meant a lot to me," Aili said. "I've been collecting Breyer Horses for nearly 10 years, and I have about 35 of them - it's like my own little farm. Every one is hand-painted so even if you have two of the exact same models they will look a little different. But, the model of Cosmo looks just like my horse. It even has a scar that Cosmo has - he's one of a kind."
Not only is the model a nearly identical re-creation of Cosmo, but it's also the only one of its kind. Breyer Animal Creations doesn't take custom orders, and thus Aili is the first Make-A-Wish Kid to receive a model of her horse.
"When I first decided what I wanted for my wish I knew I wanted to do something that I would not be able to do without Make-A-Wish - and this was it," Aili said. "I used to find horses that were the same color as Cosmo and put sticky tack on them so that they would look like him."
Makuch is the daughter of Sandra Makuch, Westfield Academy and Central School's music teacher, and Bill Makuch.
"I happened to be with her when she thought of it while we were driving back from the hospital," Sandra said. "While undergoing treatment you can get consumed by it, but Make-A-Wish kind of drew her out of that to think about what she wanted - it was a really neat moment when she did. Especially because she realized that she may not always have Cosmo, but she'll always have this model."
"No matter how many people we know, or how much money we had, we could never get a Breyer Horse model made," Bill added. "So, for her to work through that and come up with something that really was impossible for us to do without Make-A-Wish was really pretty cool."
Throughout the course of her struggle with Wilms' tumor, which was the size of a football in her kidney, Aili underwent two major abdominal surgeries, 21 radiation and 19 chemotherapy treatments. Today, she is in remission, and had her last chemotherapy treatment in June. Aili definitely recommends the experience of having a wish granted to others who may be struggling with life-threatening illnesses, she said.
"The whole thing revolves around you - it was beautiful," Aili said.
"What was really meaningful to me was that someone was acknowledging the struggle," Sandra added.
As an enhancement to her wish of having a model re-creation of Cosmo, Aili was invited by Breyer to visit its factory and corporate headquarters in Pequannock, N.J.
For the tour, Aili brought along her mother and father, as well as her friend Emily Connor. While there, the two girls were able to see the inner workings of the organization. But, Aili's favorite part, she said, was the archive room.
"They have most of the models produced between 1950 and 1980, which they hadn't been keeping copies of so they had to find them," Aili said. "I couldn't take them, but I got to see them up close."
Throughout the tour, Aili was also keeping an eye out for a horse model named Northern Dancer because it is Cosmo's great-great-grandfather.
"While painting our own horses, a lady brought out a horse that happened to be Northern Dancer, - they ended up giving me one," Aili said.
During the tour, Aili was also presented with the re-creation of Cosmo, which was a powerfully moving moment, she said.
"I had it narrowed down to two possibilities: it could either be absolutely horrible or it would be absolutely perfect - it was the second and I love it," Aili said. "We had been sitting in a conference room eating lunch with the staff, and after lunch our tour guide asked if I wanted the horse, and told me it had been sitting in the room right behind me. I paused and got choked up before pulling it out of this velvet bag - he was perfect."
According to Kathleen Fallon, vice president of communications for Breyer Animal Creations, Breyer usually invites Make-A-Wish kids to their annual collectors festival called BreyerFest, which they did for Aili. Although Aili was interested, she felt like it was something she could do herself, and she opted to turn down the offer. Instead, Sandra sent photos of Cosmo and Aili to Breyer, which Fallon brought to Stephanie Macejko, vice president of marketing, who found them so amazing that she had to help make her wish come true, Fallon said.
"It was so impressive, and we were so touched that I went to my boss to see if we could make an exception," Fallon said. "There was no other way we could do this, so we made the model, and everybody came down for a visit - it was great to have them here. It brings such pleasure knowing that Aili is such a huge fan of our product."
To qualify for a wish, a child must be medically eligible, which is based on life-threatening medical conditions and is determined by the child's primary care physician. Wish referrals are made by parents, guardians, members of the medical community or the children themselves. The foundation serves children between the ages of 2 and under the age of 18 at the time of the referral. As long as a child is determined eligible before the age of 18, a wish can be granted up until before they turn 21.
"I think that Make-A-Wish really offers a respite from the world of hospitals, doctors, needles and other challenges," said Kate McGowan, media relations and marketing manager for Make-A-Wish Western New York. "We offer children the chance to make their one heartfelt decision. Picking a wish gives them a sense of control in a time where they may not have much because they are sick - it's really incredible to see it come full-circle."
More than 2,000 wishes have been granted in the Western New York area, which includes a 17-county radius. However, the foundation hopes to grant even more wishes, and to do so, it needs volunteers. Volunteers may serve as wish granters, wish story writers, speakers, special event volunteers, office volunteers and more.
"We really rely on our volunteers to make the magic happen," McGowan said. "For Aili, and many other Western New Yorkers, the wish granters are Jerry and Gina. From what I heard from Jerry and Gina, it was Aili's essay that made them want to help make the wish come true."
The funding for the Make-A-Wish Foundation comes from individual contributions, special events, corporate donations and sponsorships, foundation grants, workplace giving programs and planned gifts.