Fulfilling the dying wishes of children has been a mission for Jan Emmons. Now the woman known as Sunrise the Clown is expanding her work to terminally ill adults.
"No matter what your age, it's important to die with dignity and respect and the sense that someone cares about you enough to grant your wish," says Ms. Emmons, a 40-year-old South County woman.
For years, Ms. Emmons has been known as the rainbow-wigged clown who entertains sick children in hospitals all over the Baltimore-Washington area, bringing them balloon animals and puppets. She also has raised tens of thousands of dollars for cancer research and organized Fantasy Valley, a retreat for the cancer-stricken in Southern Maryland.
When she hears of a sick child's wish that isn't being fulfilled, Ms. Emmons tries to make it come true. One successful fund-raiser generated enough money to send a 12-year-old from Deale to Disney World before he died.
Emmons has seen 10 family members succumb to cancer, including her mother. Last year, her 40-year-old husband died after an illness of a few days.
Instead of retreating into grief, Ms. Emmons plunged into her new role.
She says adults suffering from terminal illnesses are the one group whose wishes are not targeted by organizations such as Make-A-Wish, Grant-A-Wish and the Children's Wish Foundation, which generally focus on those under 20.
Days, she works as a receptionist. Nights, she tries to help families of terminally ill adults make wishes come true, as well as carrying on her work with children who have cancer.
"The families want to do something so special for the sick person," she says. "Because they're under so much stress, it's hard for them even to make extra phone calls. But it means so much to give a dying person something they have their heart set on."
Ms. Emmons performed her brand of magic for a Florida cancer patient, Bruce Wynn, landing Daytona 500 tickets after other efforts failed.
Mitch Wynn, his son, marveled at her persistance. "There's no bigger child I know of than my father. He never got to go to Daytona, and we've kind of run out of time. I had written letters, but tickets were sold out a year in advance."
Ms. Emmons worked the phones until she got a sympathetic ear.
"It's such a wonderful thing," says Mr. Wynn, who reciprocated by providing tickets for some of Ms. Emmons' "cancer kids" to attend a World Cup of professional gymnasts at the Baltimore Arena later this month.
Ms. Emmons also obtained a package of memorabilia signed by country singer Vince Gill for an Atlanta woman's mother-in-law dying of Lou Gehrig's disease.
"Jan was our little angel. She took care of everything for us," says Carol Jeffers, who called Ms. Emmons on behalf of her mother-in-law, Joanne Jeffers.
Carol Jeffers says she had called numerous organizations and public relations people in search of Vince Gill souvenirs but never got past an operator.
"People were so rude I was crying by the time I hung up," she says.
At one of the children's wish foundations, someone referred her to Jan Emmons. "There's this lady that helps people," she was told.
Sunrise the Clown did help, spending hours on the phone before reaching the appropriate contact person in Nashville. Before long, Joanne Jeffers received a stand-up poster, two 8-by-10 pictures with a personal message to her, and a nightie T-shirt with the singer's picture on it.
When he returns from touring, he is expected to call her.
"I would do anything for Jan Emmons," says Mrs. Jeffers, weeping. "You can't believe the joy she brought my mother-in-law. She's a gift from heaven to us. She made my mother-in-law smile, and it was all I hoped for."
Ms. Emmons said she needs help to incorporate wish fulfillment for terminally ill adults into her Sunrise Foundation.
"If people could just help me with contacts, like an airline that would provide tickets for the dying person to travel, I would be grateful," she says. "I also need a computer with a printer so I could do this work at home at night. Any kind of support, I can use. I don't have a lot of money, but I do have many contacts."
Sometimes the wishes don't come true fast enough.
Emmons was arranging for Tom Cruise to meet a New Jersey man's brother, but the patient died last month before the meeting could take place.
Knowing this adds to Ms. Emmons' sense of urgency.
"A lot of times, knowing somebody is working to grant a wish gives the sick person more optimism and hope," she says.
Those interested in helping with Ms. Emmons' work or who need help may write The Sunrise Foundation, Box 538, Churchton 20733 or call her at (301) 261-9573.