Gateway: Opinion

Make-A-Wish ‘patriarch’ left indelible mark on community

The Gig Harbor community recently lost one of its most hard-working, engaged and dedicated volunteers.

Sixty-one-year-old Greg Wong, one of the three individuals who started the Washington chapter of the Make-A-Wish Foundation, passed away March 14 after a six-month battle with cancer.

Along with two other locals, Bob Cleaveland and Penni Maples, Wong founded Make-A-Wish Washington in 1985. For the first two or three years, the team operated out of a garage. Back then, the team relied solely on phone calls, face-to-face meetings and handshakes to raise the money needed to grant the wishes.

In that first year, the trio managed to raise $36,000 and grant six wishes.

I didn’t personally know Wong, but I spoke with Make-A-Wish Washington and Alaska CEO Barry McConnell last week and got a pretty good feeling about what kind of guy Wong was and the kind of impact he had on those around him.

“(Make-A-Wish) will never have a better ambassador than Greg Wong,” McConnell said. “We’re really going to miss him.”

After the first few years of Wong, Cleaveland and Maples building up the chapter, the larger foundation came in to support the Washington upstart.

The trio was building at a “pace they couldn’t keep up with,” McConnell said.

Despite the new volunteer and administrative support the larger organization offered, Wong remained engaged with the mission. He was always around, and those at Make-A-Wish even called him the chapter’s “patriarch.”

“It took nights, weekends and time away from his family,” McConnell added. “He never stopped investing himself.”

Wong was actively involved in fundraising, meeting with the families of the children who were granted wishes — sometimes even playing a direct role in planning how the chapter was going to facilitate a wish. And when that wish involved someone from Gig Harbor, that really touched home with Wong.

“He was a really community-minded individual,” McConnell said. “When a kid was referred from Gig Harbor or the surrounding areas, he would claim them as his own.”

Although an adult onset of diabetes slowed him down later in his life — even leading to a leg amputation — Wong put on a happy face and always found a way to conquer whatever roadblock that stood in his way.

“He was all about setting new goals,” McConnell said. “He was gung-ho and enthusiastic about life until the very end.”