In May 2019, Maya Pieters’ dream of attending the Kentucky Derby came true. Maya, 20, of Willow Street, not only saw the Derby from her seat at the finish line, but she was able to tour Churchill Downs and meet past Triple Crown winners American Pharaoh and Justify as well as their famous trainer, Bob Baffert.
Maya, who has an extremely rare neurological disease called congenital bilateral perisylvian syndrome and suffers with seizures on a daily basis as well as difficulties with speech, has found some relief working with horses at local horse farms.
Michelle Pieters, Maya’s mother, calls her daughter a “horse whisperer. Maya’s talent for gaining the trust of horses is on display in a recent video she made that shows her leading a horse through a series of exercises. Her video is part of the Make-A-Wish Philadelphia, Wilmington and Susquehanna Valley Stars At Home virtual talent show.
The summerlong Stars At Home competition features 45 regional former Make-A-Wish participants showcasing their amazing talents to raise funds so other kids can have their dreams fulfilled. Viewers can visit Starsathomephl.com and watch the videos and make donations in increments of $5 “virtual high-fives.” Each $5 donation counts as a vote. The top three vote-getters will receive prizes such as 25 gallons of Turkey Hill ice cream, a $100 Burger King gift certificate or a $100 American Express gift card.
“You see all these different videos and they touch your heart, they make you laugh, they make your jaw drop with amazement at some of the talents,” says Dennis Heron, president and CEO of Make-A-Wish Philadelphia, Wilmington and Susquehanna Valley.
The videos show off the amazing talents of the regional Make-A-Wish kids from singing and dancing to stunt bike tricks, karate moves and drumming. Two other local kids, Jade from Lancaster and Keith from Quarryville, show off their singing skills during their videos. (The Make-A-Wish website only includes the first names of Wish Kids to maintain their families’ privacy.)
“As much as you hate to pick out one, my personal favorite is Chase,” says Heron about 10-year-old Chase from Blue Bell, who, at age 5 contracted a rare infection that resulted in the amputation of his limbs. “His wish was to meet Bruno Mars, and Bruno had such an impact on him that he’s still in contact with him. But he nails this dancing routine. It is amazing. He just kills it. He’s a good young man that never let his challenges keep him down. He’s a real success story.”
The virtual talent show, which began in the beginning of the month and runs until Aug. 31, has raised more than half of its $20,000 goal.
“This has been nothing but sheer joy because you’re involving Wish Kids who are paying it forward by helping us grant wishes in the future,” Heron says.
Heron describes his 23-year career as president and CEO of the local Make-A-Wish chapter as “not a job, but a joy.”
“There’s 60 chapters in the country and I’ve often said I’m one of 60 of the luckiest people on Earth,” Heron says. “Because we grant wishes to kids that have been denied the opportunity to be kids on a daily basis.”
For many Make-A-Wish kids, the journey doesn’t end once they receive their wish. Maya Pieters joins more than 40 Make-A-Wish kids in the region to help raise money to fund more wishes and let others experience the joy they felt.
After Maya’s wish was granted, she dedicated her time and talents to help raise money to make other kids’ wishes come true. Earlier this year, during Make-A-Wish giving week, Maya set a goal to raise $250 for Make-A-Wish. She currently has raised more than $3,000. When Maya turned 20 earlier this year, she told people all she wanted was for people to donate to Make-A-Wish.
“When Maya heard about the pandemic and how many wishes were on hold because of it, she was really devastated,” says mom Michelle. “And especially right now, the sad part is some of these kids, depending upon their illness, their wishes might never be granted.”
Maya says her favorite part of her Make-A-Wish trip was meeting everyone who works or volunteers for Make-A-Wish and remembers how special they made her feel.
“Like a VIP.” Maya says.
During her trip to Churchill Downs and nearby horse farms and racetracks, Maya had exclusive access that allowed her to get close to the animals she loves.
“The whole time she’s grooming the horses or feeding them or mucking the stalls, she has no seizures,” Michelle says. “The horses have a calming effect.”
And the calming effect goes both ways. Michelle notes how amazed everyone in American Pharaoh’s stable was with the Triple Crown-winning horse’s reaction to Maya.
“It was like this famous horse had grown up with Maya,” Michelle says. “The horse was so calm with her.”
While she was in Kentucky, Maya was interviewed by a local news station. A couple from South Carolina who breed horses saw the interview and were so touched they got in touch with Maya and asked her to name one of their recent foals. The horse is now called Maya’s Miracle.
“Maya is a walking miracle,” says Michelle, noting that other people shot suffer from the same condition have much worse outcomes. And though Maya’s main obstacle is speech issues, she was able to graduate from Lampeter-Strasburg High School on time.
With the COVID-19 pandemic still raging, many of the traditional travel-based or experience-style wishes have had to be postponed. That means kids can’t take a trip to Disneyland or visit the Philadelphia Eagles training camp. Though Heron mentions that such wishes as virtual hangouts or things like musical instruments or room makeovers can still happen.
“Stars At Home is sort of a go-between to keep that spark of hope and joy lit,” says Heron. “So when we do get the green light then they’ll have their wishes start again.”
To see performances from the Stars at Home virtual talent show benefiting Make-A-Wish Philadelphia, Delaware and Susquehanna Valley, visit starsathomephl.com.