Web site grants one man's wish

The Baltimore Sun

Michael K. Yuhas Sr. would occasionally tell his children about his desire to return to Pearl Harbor, expressing regret over missing an earlier opportunity to go. Talking to his daughter in March, the 89-year-old Army veteran and Howard County resident brought it up again. "He said, 'Now it's too late,' " Michele Neugent said.

The look on his face caught Neugent off-guard - she thought he had given up on the idea of ever making the trip.

"It's not too late," she recalled thinking.

On a whim, she visited a Web site she'd recently heard about, where people post their wants and needs, and started typing.

"I WISH to take my dad, a Pearl Harbor Survivor, back to Hawaii for his 90th birthday," she wrote. "I know that this is a long shot, but I'm trying to make his wish come true. ... A very proud daughter of a Pearl Harbor Survivor."

After months of donations and efforts from strangers around the country, Neugent and her brother, Michael Yuhas Jr., surprised their father yesterday afternoon with the news that he can see Pearl Harbor for his 90th birthday in October - and with his family.

While it is perhaps one of the bigger requests since the birth of wishuponahero.com in September, Neugent's plea is but one of thousands that have been posted.

A family car. A couple pairs of women's pants. Prayers. A cute bathing suit. Help catching up on a house payment. The petitions pour in daily, in a forum that's like the Craigslist version of the Make-A-Wish Foundation.

"You can literally wish for anything," said Dave Girgenti, a New Jersey graphic designer who created the online community, which he calls an "army of goodness."Girgenti began developing the concept as he watched TV footage of people hanging pictures of lost loved ones after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, he said. There had to be a faster way to help someone, he thought. The same thought surged again after Hurricane Katrina, as the displaced not only sought family and friends, but food, water, shelter and clothing.

Since the site's launch, chapters of members who discuss or grant wishes together have formed throughout the nation, and a foundation was started to further the effort.

"It's all about empowering you in what you do best," Girgenti said. "You help who you want to help."

Giving doesn't have to require money, Girgenti said, referring to granted wishes that involved connecting estranged siblings, sorting out bungled tax payments and sending cards of encouragement.

The ability to work within their means is what members say attracts them. They decide where their contributions go - and see their effect.

"Most of these people don't have two nickels to rub together," said Nancy Mitchell, a member of the New Jersey chapter, which took on Neugent's wish. "But you might have size 2T clothing that some mother might need."

The donors say they get something, too.

"It makes people feel like, 'You know what? I have something to offer somebody, and something of worth,' " said Monica Fioretti of Sewell, N.J., who joined the site in September to post a wish to meet her favorite actor, Nicolas Cage. "There's so much bad out there in the world, it's just nice to see that there's actually some good, too."

Geoff Nedry of Phoenix, Ariz., threw in about $20 to Yuhas' wish because of his respect for veterans, he said. He said he has found reward in seeing how others can be moved by small acts.

"A lot of times, it's heartbreaking," said Nedry, who signed onto the site in January. "There's so many people that just need so much."

Girgenti and others try to guard against cyber-swindlers, with a running list of "known scammers," and suggestions on vetting a wish. In Yuhas' case, Girgenti asked Neugent to provide evidence that her father was a veteran. Her son sent him old newspaper articles with photographs of his grandfather.

Neugent's request "struck a chord," Mitchell said.

"All of our parents or grandparents have served the country in one shape or another," she said. "We appreciate the history."

Jamielynn Storch, also in the New Jersey chapter, said she was drawn by the sincerity of the wish, and her belief that the trip could be life-changing for Yuhas and his family.

"I picture this being something very memorable, something that will be passed down from generation to generation," Storch said.

Before her chapter adopted the project, the wish had received donations totaling $380 from about 20 people.

Neugent, who has been on disability for nearly two years, knew she couldn't afford to fund the trip - and doubted brothers Michael and Richard Yuhas, who had their own pressures, would be able to do so, either.

Now the New Jersey group is aiming to raise $10,000 to send Yuhas and at least the three children, maybe some grandchildren, to Hawaii in the first week of October, Mitchell said. So far, they've gotten the local American Legion Post 133 to fund Yuhas' travel, she said. Chapter members also raised $400 wrapping Mother's Day gifts at Borders, Storch said, and were scheduled to do the same for Father's Day.

Yesterday Neugent, her brother Michael and his wife, Marian, presented the Pearl Harbor survivor with several clues disguised as Father's Day gifts.

First, a two-disc DVD set, titled Attack on Pearl Harbor. Next, a Hawaiian shirt. And last, a scrapbook Neugent had made, sporting a palm tree on its cover.

Sitting in his son's kitchen in Woodbine, Yuhas flipped through newspaper articles on veterans' ceremonies he had attended, old photographs and, finally, notes from Wish Upon a Hero donors.

"Read that," Neugent said, pointing to her wish.

"That's nice," he said upon finishing, and kissed his daughter.

"Do you know what that means?" she said. She turned to a picture of a hotel on Waikiki Beach. "That's where we're going to be staying. ... You're going to celebrate your birthday on Pearl Harbor."

Her father was silent. Then he cried.

"This is the greatest gift a father could ever wish for," he said. "This is really out of this world."

He described that day - Dec. 7, 1941 - as his children remember him doing over the years, with some new details: How he could hear bombs dropping from planes flying over the tree tops. How he wondered if it was some kind of practice, before spotting debris from the U.S. fighter planes near Schofield Barracks, where he was stationed. How he glimpsed the face of a Japanese pilot flying low, his eyes and smirking mouth. How he shot in vain at planes with his service weapon.

"We all took a beating that day," Yuhas said, recalling the frightening week he and fellow soldiers spent after the attack, fearing a Japanese invasion.

"I was one of the lucky ones," he said.

Neugent showed him the book's blank pages. "It's not finished yet," she said. "It won't be finished until the Pearl Harbor trip."

Yuhas nodded. "Oh, yeah."

arin.gencer@baltsun.com

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