Dying Wishes: Weddings to Helping Homeless

Dying children wish for gourmet dinners, celebrity visits and to help others.

Feb. 25, 2009— -- The bride was dressed in ruffled white and wore a tiara. The groom pledged to be her best friend forever. They exchanged rings, and the lucky North Texas couple swooned as they danced to their favorite song -- "Love Bug" by the Jonas Brothers.

They may be a tender age -- Jayla Cooper is 9 and the groom, Jose Griggs, is 7 -- but their parents were behind them all the way.

For Jayla, who has been diagnosed with an aggressive form of leukemia and who, according to her doctors, may only have weeks to live, the "wedding" was less a dream come true than a last wish.

"He is very cute, and I love him," Jayla said of Jose, who has a chronic and more treatable form of leukemia with a strong prognosis of recovery.

"I was so excited and happy," she told ABCNews.com. "It was really fun, and we had dances and did a lot of things."

She met her husband-to-be at a Halloween party while they were both being treated at the Center for Cancer and Blood Disorders at Children's Medical Center in Dallas.

Jayla wanted all the fanfare of a wedding -- including 150 guests, floral arrangements and a minister -- even though the ceremony was not legal. It was organized in less than a week and held at Paradise Grove on the shore of Grapeline Lake.

Every Girl Dreams About Her Wedding

"I had never heard of a wedding before," said a Children's Medical Center spokesman. "We hear a lot of Disney Worlds, or they want to sit in the cockpit of an airplane and things that tickle a kid. It makes perfect sense. What little girl doesn't dream about her wedding day?"

Some of Jayla's peers at the cancer center had asked for a horse, a puppy, a camping van, "like the one where you go and drive and sleep in."

Experts say that granting a dying wish can help not only the child deal with the trauma, but the family, as well.

"Children take their direction from their parents and their wishes," said psychologist Charles Figley, director of the Psychological Stress Research Program at Florida State University.

"It's the system that's dying, not only the child," he told ABCNews.com. "It's like a giant spider web and everyone connects and interacts. If a family believes it's a good idea, it's wonderful for everyone, not just the child."

While Jayla's wish may have been a first for the hospital, it is not the first time such a wish had ever been requested.

In 2006, Nicole Hastings, a 17-year-old terminally ill patient in Cleveland requested a commitment ceremony with her boyfriend, according to the Make-a-Wish Foundation. Like Jayla's, there were no legal papers.

All Wishes Typically Granted

"As long as the wish is something within the realm of reason and it's not something that would be potentially controversial, then it's typically granted," Goodrich told ABCNews.com.

He noted that 80 percent of all children the organization helps have surviving medical conditions. Determining whether a wish is feasible is often a decision left to local chapters.

"We don't have caps on wish costs or anything of that nature -- it's up to our individual chapters to determine what they think is a reasonable cost on a wish. It's extraordinary circumstances where we wouldn't grant a wish because of cost."

One case, where cost became a problem, took place in Philadelphia, when Tommy Geromichalos wished that his parochial school, St. Cyril's, would stay open until he could complete the eighth grade.

While the wish was initially declined, the attendant publicity resulted in the school raising $400,000, and Geromichalos graduated last spring, said Goodrich.

Sometimes, it's the dying child who coordinates the last wish.

Seattle Boy Helps Homeless

With just two weeks to live, 11-year-old Brenden Foster of Lynnwood, Wash., made a dying wish to help others. In the final stages of leukemia, he was captivated by a homeless camp.

"He's always thought about others. Never complained about having to go through this, ever," his mother, Wendy Foster, told ABC's affiliate KOMO in Seattle.

Brenden had always been the fastest runner and highest climber and wanted to be marine photographer. But when he was diagnosed with leukemia, his dream was to help others.

"I was coming back from one of my clinic appointments and I saw this big thing of homeless people, and then I thought I should just get them something," Brenden told KOMO's reporter Elisa Jaffe. "They're probably starving, so give them a chance."

Touched by his request, a local group made 200 sandwiches and delivered them to the homeless. Brenden died last November.

"It's devastating, but I find great peace in knowing we've had our time together and that we will see each other again," said his mother.

Wishes Cater to Parents' Needs

Gerald Koocher, the dean of health sciences at Simmons College in Boston said that groups like the Make-a-Wish Foundation appeal to a particular adult-oriented need.

The mentality, he said, is "This poor child isn't going to have a life. I'm going to do something special for them. Both the families want to do something special for the child if they can't buy them life … and the contributors want to help do something special."

And weddings, it seems, are a special last wish for a number of patients.

Koocher recalls working with a 19-year-old who had received a lung transplant that had been rejected. With not much longer to live, the young man married his high school sweetheart in the intensive care unit, with his psychotherapist, transplant surgeon and family in attendance.

"It was actually one of the most poignant experiences in my career," said Koocher. "It was very meaningful.

"Some of these poignant moments can be very, very powerful," he continued. "My eyes fill up when I think about going to the wedding in the intensive care unit.

"You knew that everyone was going to remember it. That can be a powerful emotional gift."

Koocher noted that occasionally wishes can come with complications.

He recalled working with one patient who was fighting with his brother when Make-a-Wish awarded him a trip, and he wanted to leave his sibling home. The family, however, did not play along.

But sometimes the unexpected can have more positive results.

One 11-year-old cancer patient Koocher worked with had wanted a boat and received one through Make-a-Wish.

Not expected to survive to age 12, the boy eventually recovered completely and now works in the boating industry – the gift boat having launched his career.

Koocher noted that while the gift is ostensibly for the child, the payoff for others can be greater.

"Certainly, the children enjoy these things, but I think also they make a lot of the adults who give money to the foundation and the parents of the child feel like they can do something when everything else seems hopeless," he said.

Autographs, Celebrity Wishes

For the families, the final wish provides memories.

"One of the things that's very important to families who might lose a child is to know that they've done everything that they can for their child," Koocher said. "Even if they lose the child, they've preserved some positive memories."

Other national programs support the dying wishes of children. Caps for Kids helps cancer patients get an autographed hat from their hero -- sometimes it's Mickey Mouse and other times it's Hannah Montana. The program coincides with chemotherapy, which typically robs children of their hair.

At Children's Medical Center in Dallas, where Jayla and Jose were treated, pre-teen heartthrob Jesse McCartney stopped by to visit patients and sign hats.

In other programs for Children's what calls their "frequent fliers," those who are hospitalized for 30 days at a time, get to set the menu and host a fancy dinner party at the hospital.

For Jayla Cooper, the wedding was an excuse to have a party and help others, according to the family's personal guardian angel, Shonda Schaeffer, executive director of the Grapevine Relief and Community Exchange Clinic, who has been raising funds to help the Coopers.

"One of the reasons she wanted to do the party is the number of people in this tight-knit community who have come out to help," Schaeffer told ABCNews.com. "And her dream was to be a bride -- so it kind of came up like a wedding."

"This little girl can teach us all a thing or two about living," Schaeffer said. "She's not afraid to die and has the most precious attitude."

Jayla has told her parents that she is "ready to go see Jesus and go to heaven." She says she'll miss her family but reassures her brother that "I'll come down from heaven one night and tickle your tummy."

For Jayla's mother, Lisa Cooper, agreeing to the last wish for a wedding was easy. "She's my baby," she said, before bursting into tears.

"She has come to terms with this better than any other child or human being in this world," said the 26-year-old. "It must be the Lord because she is stronger than I will ever be."

Jayla's mother does get angry when she sees so little attention paid to acute myelogenous leukemia (AML), a disease that in many other chronic acute forms has been brought into remission.

"This is my 9-year-old daughter," said Cooper, whose 22-year-old cousin died of AML. "They are children, babies, who don't get a chance to make it in life. They need to know that they are suffering, and we have to find a cure."

Learn more about the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society.

Contact the GRACE Clinic to make donations to the Cooper family.

Contact Make a Wish Foundation.