When Kelly Kennedy experienced the impact of a wish firsthand, he set out to give back to Make-A-Wish in the way he knew best.
Kelly has been a high school swim coach at Campus High School in Wichita, Kansas for 34 years.
Aside from being a swim coach, he is also a husband and a father of three – Matthew, Lauren and his youngest, Aubrey.
When Aubrey was four, her mother, Pam, noticed a lump on Aubrey’s side. Pam immediately took her to the doctor which quickly led to transporting her to the hospital that same day. Aubrey was diagnosed with a Wilms tumor on her left kidney.
“It still brings tears to my eyes,” said Pam. “We took turns being up and down; being the supporter and needing the support.”
Shortly after, Make-A-Wish entered the picture and 4-year-old Aubrey had to decide out of everything in the world, what her one-true would be.
“It came down to a cow for the backyard or a trip to Disney World. Thank goodness she chose Disney World,” Kelly laughed.
Aubrey, accompanied by her parents and siblings, set out for Disney World staying at the Give Kids The World Village.
“When Aubrey was going through her treatment, Pam was much stronger than I was. She was the calm and rational one. I kept getting in trouble at the hospital because I wouldn’t leave Aubrey’s side. The nurses finally told me, ‘If you don’t go and get some sleep then you’re going to be in a bed right next to her.’ Then after it was all over, and I could breathe a little bit, Pam had the chance to break down. So, by the time it came for Aubrey’s, we were all just exhausted. Her wish allowed us the chance to breathe,” said Kelly.
After the family returned, Kelly was inspired.
“After experiencing Aubrey’s wish, I told Pam that if there was any way I could ever pay back Make-A-Wish I would. Well, it just so happened that in 2013, I had five seniors on my swim team who were great kids and they wanted to leave a mark on their school. So, my assistant swim coach and I came up with the idea for Swim to a Wish – that way they could say they made an impact and we could wish it forward for another family,” said Kelly.
Swim to a Wish began, though unnamed the first year, and Kelly dove head first into the fundraising pool.
Over the course of a weekend, swimmers join together to swim a 100-mile marathon in relay format, with five boys swimming 20 miles each. At all times, someone is in the water and according to Kelly, the bulk of the donations come at the much-anticipated end.
“The first year we didn’t know what we were doing. We set a goal of $1,200. We had $1,600 in hand before the event even started,” said Kelly. Though Kelly felt like it was thrown together, they ended up raising $5,700 the first year of the event.
Then, at the start of the season the next year, some of the boys started asking, “Well, you’re doing that again, right?”
Kelly said that’s when he knew they had to name the event and create a logo. “I don’t think there’s any way we could quit now. I think we would be in a lot of trouble if we weren’t going to do it.”
“We really didn’t expect it to be what it is but, in a few weeks, it will be our 7th annual. There are other schools that have joined in with us and we’ve had as many as 10 schools participate.”
Kelly said along with the participation growth, the amount raised has also increased. Last year, they raised over $14,000 and in the six years since its inception, Swim to a Wish has raised over $200,000 for local wish kids battling critical illnesses.
Among the schools that participate alongside Campus, is Derby, known to be Campus’ biggest rival in swimming. Despite the competition that exists between the two, it is set aside for the weekend of the event.
“It’s nice that these boys have found that common ground and that sense of community,” said Pam, Kelly’s wife. “It’s been impactful in a lot of areas. Not just Make-A-Wish, but within the schools and the boys as well.”
When the event weekend comes, the swimmers pack their bags as they prepare to sleep in the locker room for the entire weekend.
“You’ve got to give the boys a lot of credit for them to be willing to give up the weekend and spend that much time in the water and be completely exhausted at the end of it all,” said Pam.
Kelly explains how Jimmy Adams, the swim coach for Derby, puts it to his kids. “His kids were getting kind of grouchy and so he took them aside and said, ‘Listen. You guys suffer for a weekend doing this, whereas these kids that you are doing this for suffer every day of their lives.’ That really touched the boys and they finished that whole thing on a high note,” said Kelly.
Kelly explains that his favorite part is always the end when their wish ambassador comes, and he watches as the boys light up as they see who they are impacting. With tears in his eyes, partially due to lack of sleep, Kelly watches as his swimmers become humble heroes. “You just see them come alive when they realize who it’s all for. I just kind of stand back.”
Kelly’s biggest advice for those wanting to get involved is to just put some thought into something and from there, it’s really an easy thing to do; the support right behind you.
Even after all these years and the success of this event, Kelly still doesn’t believe he has repaid Make-A-Wish for what they did for his family.
Though this wish was granted in 2003, 4-year-old Aubrey has become 19-year-old Aubrey, and Kelly has put more coaching years under his belt, the entire family still reflects on how the wish has impacted them today.
“My wish trip was a sign that everything was going to be okay,” said Aubrey.
“It gave us hope. And filled us with a ton joy,” said Pam.
“The wish provided light in a very dark time of our lives. That light got us back on track,” said Kelly.
The 7th Annual Swim to a Wish will take place the weekend of February 22-24.