Can you imagine not getting to go to prom because you were too sick? Or being routinely left out by your peers because your social skills are "different"?
It's life for many local high school kids with cancer, chronic illness and autism spectrum disorder. And one lady who takes care of them got sick of the cycle. Michelle Soto created Wish Upon a Teen back in 2011. Today, the Bloomfield Hills-based organization prides itself on being the country's sole nonprofit whose primary focus is helping these adolescents navigate the rocky path to adulthood.
"I wanted to create something that would give them the opportunity to be teenagers – and experience the same things that a healthy teenager would," Soto says. "The idea is for them to be around other teenagers going through similar situations."
Soto, who's also worked as a child life specialist and has a 7-year-old son with autism, knows being a teen is hard enough. "When you take a teenager and you add a cancer diagnosis and it causes depression, it causes them to withdraw."
Socialization is a key part of growing up, she adds, and it's a piece kids she works with often miss out on. WUaT programs address this missing link and provide fun – like prom, a spa day, yoga, music, theater, cooking classes and even a "Design My Room" makeover for extended hospital stays – in safe environments. Often, the activities get kids chatting to one another about issues they're familiar with, except maybe instead of boys and clothes, they're talking about nurses or surgery. In the process, they "rediscover and rebuild their self-esteem," as WUaT puts it.
"We don't provide therapy," Soto says, "but it is a natural therapy that happens."