The Make-A-Wish Foundation has a long history of turning kids’ wishes into realities – be it a trip to Disney World, a backyard fantasy playscape or tickets to a Taylor Swift concert.
“But it doesn’t stop there,” says Kim Pugh, director of major gifts for Make-A-Wish Connecticut. “It’s not just that you have your wish and that’s it. It’s a wish journey.”
You don’t have to tell Jayson Martinez. His association with Make-A-Wish began with a life-threatening health situation and has grown into a promising culinary future.
As the organization prepares for one of the hottest tickets of the Westport season – Taste of Wishes in October – organizers say they’re taking stock of how the annual fundraiser and November’s Wish Night truly change the lives of hundreds of children with critical illnesses.
“I had frequent headaches,” says 18-year-old Jayson, a 2023 graduate of Bullard Havens Technical School in Bridgeport. “It started happening when I was about six. My mom took me to the hospital and it turned out I had a brain tumor.
“I had to have surgery right after I was diagnosed and then I’ve had an MRI done every four months and follow-ups at [Yale New Haven Hospital] since then. That was my second home.”
Kim met Jayson a few years after his surgery, when his doctor recommended him to Make-A-Wish.
As the second youngest of five children, his mom raised him in both Bridgeport and her parents’ home in Honduras, the then-eighth-grader says he took his wish selection seriously, wondering whether he should ask for something practical or fun and frivolous.
“I was a kid,” he says, laughing. “What should I wish for? I want everything!”
In the end, he considered his immediate future and opted for a shopping spree for a laptop, clothes and school supplies.
“Honestly, I thought, I’m going to need a lot of stuff for high school,” reasons Jayson, who takes after his mom, who has long worked in a corporate bakery. “I think education comes first.”
While the shopping spree only lasted a few hours, Jayson’s culinary dreams resonated with Make-A-Wish organizers. They knew just who to call when they started planning the first Taste of Wishes in 2018 and looked for “wish kids” to join in the evening’s excitement.
Soon Jayson stood side-by-side with celebrity Chef Christian Petroni, joint winner of the 14th “Food Network Star,” who will make a return to Taste of Wishes this October.
The two crafted a gnocchi dish together and Jayson’s dedication and willingness to learn made a real impression on his new mentor.
“I wasn’t expecting to cook with an award-winning chef. No pressure there!” Jayson jokes.
The chefs make an effort to make the evening breezy and fun, which isn’t hard, says Robin Selden, managing partner and executive chef of event sponsor Marcia Selden Catering and Naked Fig Catering.
This will be her third year cooking with a wish kid and she’s looking forward to a strategy session to make sure she incorporates her young sous chef’s favorite ingredients into their signature dish. Last year, she and wish kid Julia made a pepperoni pizza and macaroni and cheese mash-up followed by cookies and cream strawberry cupcakes.
“It’s really, really special seeing these little faces so excited and happy,” she says.
After the evening, Christian, who now owns Petroni Foods, kept up with Jayson and encouraged him to apply to the Culinary Institute of America after graduation. With his cooking chops well-honed from four years in Bullard Havens’ culinary arts program, he was accepted but, even with well-deserved financial aid, the tuition, room and board were a bit of a stretch for his family.
Christian to the rescue! He and Jayson made a cooking video together that quickly went viral on Christian’s Instagram, earning more than 7,000 likes and 500 shares. In it, Christian explained that Jayson cooks dinner for his family nearly every night – after coming home from a full day at school and an evening job.
“It raised $25,000 in less than 24 hours,” says Jayson. “He’s been 100 percent supportive.”
In addition to Petroni and Selden, this year’s celebrity line-up includes Jes Bengston, executive chef at Terrain Garden Café; Dan Kardos, chef/owner of Café Melba; Anthony Kostelis, executive chef of The Whelk; and Matt Storch, a “Chopped” winner, chef/owner of Match of Norwalk and Match Burger Lobster.
As in past years, each chef will work alongside a wish kid in a kitchen at Aitoro Appliance, demonstrating food prep, cooking delectable dishes and serving up samples of their creations. The event brings together many of Westport and the region’s culinary luminaries, with Bartaco, Blind Rhino, Forever Sweet Bakery, Sweet Brioche Artisan Pastries and Copps Island Oysters supporting with food donations.
The third annual festivities take place from 6 to 8:30 p.m., October 3, with all proceeds benefiting Make-A-Wish Connecticut, which grants about 250 wishes a year for Connecticut children with critical illnesses. In total, the state organization has granted more than 3,600 wishes to local children.
If you didn’t snap up one of the tickets for Taste of Wishes, which has limited seating at Aitoro, you might want to mark your calendar for the annual Wish Night, a gala celebration set for Nov. 11 at Greenwich Country Club, says Make-A-Wish Events Manager Meghan Doody.
Fun, upbeat events like the Taste help dispel some misconceptions about Make-A-Wish, says Kristen Moran, director of marketing and communications. Many of the children granted wishes are past the most dire part of their health journey or are in treatments and looking forward to all the future holds.
For Jayson, that means starting classes in Hyde Park this fall.
“This experience has helped Jayson grow and develop more confidence and self-esteem as he reaches for his goals,” Kim says.
“I’m not always creative. I’m still, to this day, drawing stick figures,” he says. “But there’s a creative me that comes out in cooking. I can’t wait.”