Giving Hope to the Wishless

The night before he died of cancer in March 2012, Nik Ritschel told his mother about a wish he had.

It started with his friend Nate, whom he’d met while undergoing clinical trials. Nate was diagnosed with cancer a month after his 18th birthday, so he didn’t qualify for things like Make-A-Wish.

“He talked to me about Nate and how important a wish was, and he asked if there was anything I could do,” recalls Nik’s mother, Kelli Ritschel.

And just like that, a seed was planted.

Nik’s oncologist told Ritschel there was a known gap for young adults experiencing a serious illness, because most Make-a-Wish type programs focused only on children. Through the love of family and friends, Ritschel raised enough money to provide Nate’s wish and help four other youngsters.

That was just the beginning.

Today, the Nikolas Ritschel Foundation and Nik’s Wish are a light of hope for anyone in America fighting cancer between the ages of 18 and 24. Some wishes celebrate the completion of treatment while others give patients and their families a break while undergoing treatments. It’s a chance for respite and lifelong memories in the midst of a difficult time.

“A good percentage of these kids don’t beat cancer, so the memories we help them to make are very important for the families,” says Ritschel, a Rockford native.

The foundation accepts donations any time, but it also hosts several major events to help fund additional wishes. Events include Nik’s Home Run in October, the Shamrock 5K Beer Run in March, Golf for Joy in the summer and a barbecue where Ritschel and others sell fully roasted pork shoulders.

The nonprofit Nikolas Ritschel Foundation is almost entirely supported by volunteers, except for a recently hired development director, Tammy English. The move will help to make Nik’s Wish more sustainable for the future, Ritschel says.

“Nik’s wish and his vision for how important this is needs to extend beyond our time here,” she says. “As long as cancer is there, we want to make sure we can provide this service and this help to people.”

Over the years, Nik’s Wish has served 300 young adults, and Ritschel has personally served 100 of them. The loss of her son still stings, but Ritschel takes heart knowing Nik would be proud of the work she’s doing for young people like him and Nate.

“It’s rewarding to be this wish maker for folks and see them have a little bit of fun,” says Ritschel. “It brings me quite a bit of happiness to be able to do that. I see a wish delivered and it makes me think that Nik is smiling.”