September 3rd, 2020
On May 9, 2019, I was excited. On that sunny day in Denver, I had a meeting with senior executives from AARP, after a decade of trying to get their attention.
That meeting, it turns out, was the beginning of a new chapter for my non-profit, Wish of a Lifetime.
I began the process of founding Wish of a Lifetime in the summer of 2007, while I was with the Pittsburgh Steelers football team. I filled out the paperwork at my uncle’s summer house in Indiana, Pa., where I lived between football practices.
Wish of a Lifetime honors members of an incredibly important part of our society, but one that’s at risk for being overlooked, forgotten or pushed aside: older Americans. By granting their lifelong wishes, we show them that they, and their dreams and desires, still matter at a time in their lives when they have so often been discarded. The average age of a wish recipient is 83
Why older people matter to me
I have a soft spot in my heart for older people in part because of my relationships with two incredible grandparents who were both heroes of mine. I shared a wonderful bond with both and cherished every moment with them.
My maternal grandmother, Donna, who lived with us until I turned 19, was one of the sweetest people whom I have ever met.
My paternal grandfather, whom I’m named after, was a World War II hero and my first ski instructor. He taught me to ski by throwing miniature candy bars down the mountain. That was pure genius!
At age 15, I joined the United States Ski Team. That year, I traveled to Tokyo, Japan for my first World Cup race outside the United States.
There, while standing in the back of a crowded bus, I saw a woman, possibly in her early 90’s, begin to board. What happened next struck me as remarkable — and much different from anything I was used to seeing in the States.
People took the woman’s hand, helped her aboard, made sure she had a seat, and then bowed to her — all before the bus moved an inch. I was blown away. “Was she famous?” I wondered.
I had never witnessed such kindness toward an older person — to a stranger — in the United States. This was humanity at its finest, I thought. And, as it turned out, it was also an inspiration.
Steve Jobs told the Stanford University 2005 graduating class that we can only connect life’s dots while looking back. Looking back, I realize that Wish of a Lifetime got its start on that bus.
A new attitude toward aging
In America, there is a tendency to overlook older people. We may ignore them or push their needs aside. Sometimes we marginalize their dreams and desires, thinking that their time has passed.
This attitude is wrong. Some of them are the people who fought for our freedom on the beaches of Normandy, on the boats at Pearl Harbor, or by keeping factories going back home. They helped to protect and build our nation, invented many things that we love today, and gave life to our parents or grandparents.
I believe older people deserve our respect. We should cherish them and treasure all that they have to offer. Their time is not up; their dreams do matter. And if you think about it, if we are fortunate, one day we will be them.
Wish of a Lifetime’s mission is to change cultural attitudes toward aging and show everyone all the wonderful things that are possible in the later chapters of life when you never stop dreaming.
Over the past eleven years we have granted thousands of wishes across all 50 states. In the process, I’ve met some of the finest people on Earth.
Among them: Three sisters who, after a decade apart, wished to be reunited. The youngest was 101; the oldest, 110.
I met a man dying of emphysema who’d always wanted to travel the world. He wished to receive postcards from different cities so that he could travel vicariously. More than 6,000 postcards came to him, from every continent but Antarctica.
I remember a 97-year-old woman who wished for a glimpse into the future. We sent her to Google’s headquarters for a behind-the-scenes tour of their innovative projects.
And we could never forget the trailblazing African American Veteran and four-time Olympic Gold medalist (’48 and ’52) whose wish we granted to meet his hero, President Barack Obama.
Wishes do come true
I’m grateful to have achieved a lot in my lifetime. I competed in two Olympics, was drafted into the NFL, and am the CEO of a wonderful marketing software company. But my most meaningful accomplishment, and what I want to be my lasting legacy, is Wish of a Lifetime.
I went to that first meeting with AARP hoping for a project to collaborate on together. To my surprise, they were thinking bigger: to fully join forces, and help Wish of a Lifetime grow to reach the organization’s 38 million members.
Nobody starts a non-profit with the end in mind. There are no venture capitalists to pitch, no investors on the cap table, no potential IPOs and no M&A bankers to network with. You start a charity to give back, to help others, and to further a cause you’re passionate about.
And yet — I had my doubts, at first. I felt apprehensive about giving up control of my most cherished charity. Many times along the journey with AARP, the thought of losing control has made me feel anxious and nervous.
It’s not about me
But these feelings also prompted me to ask myself some important questions. What’s really important to me? Is it recognition as Wish of a Lifetime’s founder? Having full control of our strategic direction? Or is what really matters to touch as many lives as possible, grant more wishes, and inspire many people along the way?
I had always hoped that Wish of a Lifetime would, someday, become bigger than me. Because, really, it’s never been about me in the first place.
And so: I am excited to announce that Wish of a Lifetime is joining the AARP family, as an affiliated charity. All of our staff will be joining the AARP team, and I will remain an active, committed champion of our vital work by staying on the Wish of a Lifetime board of directors long term.
Joining forces makes sense when you think how similar the two organizations’ missions are: for those who may not know, AARP is a non-profit that works to empower people to choose how they live as they age. It, too, was founded by someone seeking to solve a problem she witnessed: by Dr. Ethel Percy Andrus, who, in the 1950s, found an impoverished former teacher living in a chicken coop and sought dignity and security for all older people.
I look forward to working with AARP CEO Jo Ann Jenkins, Chief Operating Officer Scott Frisch, and the rest of the AARP team to fulfill many more dreams and wishes together.
Wish of a Lifetime has officially become much bigger than me. I couldn’t be more pleased.