A magical journey for Attley: How Make-A-Wish turned a dream into reality at Disney World

Story and video by Lawson Martin. Photos provided by Make-a-Wish North Texas.

Every 20 minutes, a child is diagnosed with a critical illness, so leaders at Make-A-Wish North Texas are working diligently to fulfill hundreds of wishes each year that will give children a spark to believe that anything is possible.

The Make-A-Wish Foundation is a nonprofit organization that helps fulfill the wishes of children with critical illnesses between the ages of 2.5 and 18 years old. The Make-A-Wish Foundation has chapters worldwide, including here in North Texas. The North Texas chapter serves 161 counties in Texas and has fulfilled over 12,000 wishes to date.

“We bring joy to these tough situations,” says Make-A-Wish North Texas CEO Kim Elenez. “Often families need space to be able to just step outside of the medical appointments, the health insurance, and navigating all of the complexities and stress that come with it. And so we can look at a child and say, ‘Guess what? We’re going to give you control back. What’s your one true greatest wish?’ And then we go make it happen for them.”

Kim says Make-A-Wish’s efforts go beyond being a nice gesture, demonstrating significant benefits for the well-being of children and families. Make-A-Wish’s research finds that children who receive wishes are less likely to experience unplanned hospital visits, resulting in decreased ER admissions and lower hospital utilization. This contributes to improved health outcomes for children and translates to significant cost savings for families.

“Children get to have this wonderful experience made from their dreams, and we hopefully keep them a little bit healthier,” Kim says.

The wishes children make range from becoming a police officer for a day to visiting the ICEE headquarters to develop a special, delicious yellow ICEE.

Among those children who have recently made wishes through Make-A-Wish North Texas is Natalie Johnson, who goes by Attley. Attley wished to go to The Most Magical Place on Earth – Disney World.

Among those children who have recently made wishes through Make-A-Wish North Texas is Natalie Johnson, who goes by Attley. Attley wished to go to The Most Magical Place on Earth – Disney World.

During Attley’s annual check-up at her doctor, the doctor heard a heart murmur. The doctor said it was probably nothing to worry about but referred Attley to a specialist as a precaution. The specialist found that Attley’s murmur was not innocent and that she has a condition called hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a disease in which the heart muscle becomes thickened.

The specialist put Attley on medication and requested to see her once a year, but that soon turned into six-month visits. When Attley was around 4.5 years old, the specialist told her and her family that she was heading in the direction of heart failure.

Attley then began seeing a heart failure doctor every four or five months up until a couple of years ago when her body stopped responding to medication. Attley had a hospital visit where they switched her medications, but that didn’t help.

“Within probably six months, we went from everything’s good to go to ‘We need surgery,'” Attley’s mom, Angela, says. “It was bizarre. So after her first-grade year, we decided to start homeschooling because we had to have open heart surgery.”

Attley’s open heart surgery took place last November.

Angela had heard about the Make-A-Wish Foundation in the past but was reminded of the organization when she saw a friend organizing a birthday fundraiser for Make-A-Wish on Facebook. Her friend encouraged her to apply to get a wish granted through Make-A-Wish, so Angela applied in October 2022, right before Attley’s surgery. She says she then forgot that she even applied and focused all her energy on Attley’s surgery.

“We had our surgery and a good probably five or six months of recovery at home, and then I got the call, and I was like, “Oh my goodness! I forgot all about this!” and it was very surprising,” Angela says.

Angela and Attley’s dad, Sterling, would ask Attley if she could meet anyone in the world who she would want to meet, and Attley always responded with a different Disney princess’s name. Attley and her family would always sing Disney songs around the house, too.

“She was like, ‘I want to have a tea party with the princesses – the real princesses – not the pretend ones,'” Angela says. “So we went to the Make-A-Wish headquarters, and they asked her, ‘Where would you like to go? What would you like to do? Who would you like to be for a day?’ and all the questions came back to the princesses. And they were saying, ‘We can’t really set up a tea party, but we can send you.’ And her eyes just got really big.”

The Johnson family – Attley, Angela, her brother, Isaiah, and Sterling – traveled on a plane from Texas to Orlando, Florida, where it was their first time at Disney World.

At the park, the family met several princesses, including Elsa, Anna, Ariel, Tiana, and Rapunzel.

“Every time she met a princess, of course, I’m bawling my eyes out because it was such a special moment,” Angela says. “I think I cried the hardest when she met Elsa because I knew that meant a lot to her.”

One of Attley’s favorite parts of the trip was when she got to go to the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique at Magic Kingdom Park, where guests get to be transformed into princesses. Angela says Attley was having difficulty deciding which princess she wanted to be as part of her magical makeover, but the family had recently met Princess Elena of Avalor, so her final decision was Princess Elena. They gave her a dress and a tiara to make her feel like royalty.

“I felt great,” Attley says.

“You could tell every little girl and boy in there were just smiling ear to ear,” Angela says. “And it was worth every penny we spent when we went because they made her feel like royalty.”

After they visited the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique, the Johnson family rushed back to the Give Kids the World Village. This resort provides critically ill children and their families with week-long wish vacations at no cost, where they got to meet other families who also had children who were critically ill. At the village, they hosted a talent show for the kids. Attely sang “Into the Unknown” from Frozen 2 in front of everyone while still wearing her Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique dress.

“She shines when she’s on the stage and loves it,” Angela says. “And, of course, we’re sitting in the background, and I’m boohooing, and daddy’s singing along.”

According to Angela, the family’s time at the Give Kids the World Village was “humbling.”

“When you’re in the moment of heart surgery, every doctor’s appointment, every prick, every poke, everything you have to go through, you think we’re just going through so much,” Angela says. “When we went to the Give Kids the World Village, I got to meet and talk with other families whose kids have had two or three surgeries and are younger than Attley; it was very humbling. And so it just really made me realize how blessed we are. It’s been a journey, I’m not going to lie, but to know that she’s alive, she’s breathing. That’s why I was crying; we’re just so blessed that she’s even alive right now.”

The Johnson family says the experience was a magical trip of a lifetime.

When asked what they would tell other families going through similar situations, they responded, “You’re not alone.”

“Other people are going through it,” Angela says. “There are people who want to help and will be there to support you, too.”

As for other families who will get their wishes granted through Make-A-Wish, Angela wants to tell them, “Just soak it all in because it’s over in a second.”

Angela expresses deep gratitude and admiration for the organization from the initial phone call to the follow-up after the wish fulfillment. She says her interactions were seamless and positive, emphasizing the continuous support, attention to detail, and willingness to address any concerns or questions they had about the trip.

“We have so much gratitude,” Angela says. “This is a trip probably once in a lifetime for us, just because it’s very expensive to go to Disney, and we are a one-income family. So to be able to experience something like that with our family after everything that we’ve gone through, it was a nice break to get our minds off of all of the appointments, pricks, pokes, and everything that Attley’s been through.”

CEO Kim says Make-A-Wish North Texas is continually looking for volunteers. If you’d like to get involved with Make-A-Wish or learn more about the organization, visit https://wish.org/ntx.