Gig Harbor resident Ken Kieffer once earned a living by practicing law.
But Kieffer, 67, has devoted much of his life to volunteer work, which recently earned him recognition as the national 2016 Volunteer of the Year Award from the Arizona-based Make-A-Wish Foundation.
Make-A-Wish, founded in 1980 and headquartered in Phoenix, is a nonprofit organization that arranges experiences described as “wishes” for children who suffer from life-threatening medical conditions.
Kieffer, selected from among 25,000 volunteers in 60 chapters across the U.S., has granted more than 300 wishes, and says he has no plans to stop anytime soon.
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“I see them as normal kids who need help,” Kieffer said of Make-A-Wish recipients, modestly adding that while he is honored and overwhelmed by the award, “it is not about anyone but the kids and the families.”
Kieffer’s love for working with children began more than 40 years ago when he first volunteered to help with the Special Olympics. In 1997, Kieffer started his work with Make-A-Wish, juggling his volunteer duties while also practicing law.
In 2011, Kieffer retired so that he could devote his energies to Make-A-Wish.
Juli McClave, the Make-A-Wish volunteer manager for Alaska and Washington, nominated Kieffer for his award, and praises him for his selflessness.
“Ken is a rare combination of thoughtful, compassionate, energetic, wickedly smart — except in math — kind, resourceful, eloquent and funny,” said McClave. “And the guy never sleeps. The world is a much better place with Ken in it, and Make-A-Wish is beyond lucky to have his friendship.”
Going above and beyond the call of duty is a matter of routine for Kieffer, McClave said.
For instance, Kieffer had emergency triple bypass surgery in 2012 and was under doctor’s orders to do no more than light walking for two to three months. However, just one week after his operation, Kieffer had his son drive him to the home of a Make-A-Wish recipient to deliver a gift.
“He has granted the wishes of over 350 kids now, and he treats everyone as if he/she were his own child,” said McClave. “I have never met anyone like Ken Kieffer.”
When Kieffer is not personally granting wishes, he volunteers to drive families about to go on Make-A-Wish vacations to the airport. Or, he offers to pick them up.
While Make-A-Wish volunteers often try to guess what children might ask for, Kieffer said he and his colleagues are almost are always surprised, which makes granting the wishes all the more fun.
When Kieffer is not personally granting wishes, he volunteers to drive families about to go on Make-A-Wish vacations to the airport.
One wish Kieffer granted in 2013 was for Violet Spataro, then 5 years old, who had been diagnosed as an infant with Bi-Lateral Retinoblastoma, a type of cancer that develops in the retinas of a person’s eyes.
After tests were completed, it was determined that Violet had a rare gene mutation that can cause recurring eye tumors, as well as the strong probability of developing cancer in other parts of her body for as long as she lives.
Violet asked Make-A-Wish to help her meet favorite Disney character, Mickey Mouse. With Kieffer’s help, Violet and her family traveled to Disneyland where she had a special meeting with her pal, Mickey.
“Make-A-Wish impacted our lives in such a positive way. And the added bonus for our family was having Ken as Violet’s wish-granter,” said Shenay Spartaro, Violet’s mother. “Ken is one of the most selfless and loving people we have ever known. You see the joy he shines daily as he volunteers to make a difference in the lives of many others. He is an inspiration and we are blessed to have him as a lifelong friend.”
Kieffer, who characteristically discounts the impacts he has on the lives of others, said he lives by a simple motto.
“What if it was your own child?” asked Kieffer. “Or, grandchild?”
Those who want more information, or are interested in becoming a Make-A-Wish volunteer, can visit http://akwa.wish.org.
Michelle McGrath is a freelance writer and a member of MediaLab at Pacific Lutheran University. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.