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How Oprah Winfrey and Justin Bieber helped the Make-A-Wish Foundation amid COVID-19

Max Zahn with Andy Serwer
·3 mins read

Oprah Winfrey, DJ Khaled, and Justin Bieber are among the celebrities who have fulfilled wishes requested by ill children through the Make-A-Wish Foundation since the coronavirus pandemic made it impossible for the young fans to meet their idols in person.

In a new interview, Make-A-Wish CEO Richard Davis told Yahoo Finance that within a week of the pandemic shutdown some of the world’s most recognizable celebrities agreed to meet with children over videoconference, sometimes spending over an hour and a half in conversations that included a tour of their home.

“The videos were as remarkable as anything I've seen since I've been here,” says Davis, who took over as CEO last year. “The selfless, thoughtful, sweet nature of the celebrities is unparalleled.”

“I can't remember one [conversation] going less than a half an hour. I remember one going an hour and 40 minutes,” he adds. “This celebrity is walking them into their life, showing them around their house, taking them out to their garden.”

The Make-a-Wish Foundation, a philanthropy that for four decades has granted wishes to ill children who sought a theme park visit or a celebrity meet-up, has put thousands of wishes on hold amid COVID-19 but also found creative ways to keep granting them.

The organization initially thought the shift to virtual celebrity meet-ups would make for a worse experience for the children, but it found the opposite to be true, said Davis, the former CEO of U.S. Bancorp (USB).

“When we first had to ask children to pivot their wish from a backstage meeting with Justin Bieber [or] being brought up on the stage to meet Justin Bieber to meeting him on a video conference,” Davis says. “We the adults all thought what a shame it is that they're not going to be able to get the concert that they want.”

But the virtual conversations allow children to hold a longer, more meaningful conversation with the celebrity, and revisit the video long after the interaction, Davis said.

LOS ANGELES, CA - JULY 27:  Make a Wish recipient Wish Child Grace and honoree Justin Bieber (R) attend the 2014 Young Hollywood Awards brought to you by Mr. Pink held at The Wiltern on July 27, 2014 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Araya Diaz/Getty Images for Mr. Pink)
LOS ANGELES, CA - JULY 27: Make a Wish recipient Wish Child Grace and honoree Justin Bieber (R) attend the 2014 Young Hollywood Awards brought to you by Mr. Pink held at The Wiltern on July 27, 2014 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Araya Diaz/Getty Images for Mr. Pink)

“So by amazing proportions, there are things that we thought would be a disappointing second approach that had become a primary best practice,” he says.

Davis spoke to Yahoo Finance Editor-in-Chief Andy Serwer in an episode of “Influencers with Andy Serwer,” a weekly interview series with leaders in business, politics, and entertainment.

The organization grants 16,000 wishes each year but 90% of its wishes “evaporated in March” due to travel risks amid the pandemic, Davis said.

FILE - This Jan. 26, 2020 file photo shows DJ Khaled at the 62nd annual Grammy Awards in Los Angeles. Stay-at-home orders, traveling fears and the cancellation of sporting events, concerts and theme parks have forced the Make-a-Wish foundation to come to a stand-still, leaving young people’s requests in holding patterns. The charity has introduced “Messages of Hope,” encouraging the public and celebrities to record inspiring messages and upload them to social media, and so far, stars like DJ Khaled have already participated. (Photo by Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP, File)
FILE - This Jan. 26, 2020 file photo shows DJ Khaled at the 62nd annual Grammy Awards in Los Angeles. Stay-at-home orders, traveling fears and the cancellation of sporting events, concerts and theme parks have forced the Make-a-Wish foundation to come to a stand-still, leaving young people’s requests in holding patterns. (Photo by Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP, File)

Since the pandemic, though, children have adapted their wishes. In addition to the virtual celebrity hangouts, children have pursued improvements to their lives at home as they spend more time indoors.

“Guess what my number one wishes are: cameras, pools, room remodels, tree houses,” he says. “Things that don't require travel but require more of an asset into my life, something to make my life more productive and give me something I've always wanted.”

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