Friday, October 24, 2014

Melanie Vale: from dream family to dream makers

By Tommie Kendall
Director of Program Services

‘A lot of days it’s the reason you even get up and go because you know there are
other kids out there who you can change as much as it changed you.’

An emotional speaker who is never short on words, Melanie Vale can talk for hours about her eleven-year-old son Tagen and the dream he was granted by the San Antonio Dream Factory in 2009.

She can explain in explicit detail the day her family was told they would be granted a dream. She can go on and on about their “amazing” experience of being involved in mAAgic Flight, when her family of five left for Give Kids The World in Orlando on the same day Tagen turned seven years old. She can talk about how she was surprised when her son, who had never run before or since, jumped out of his stroller and ran into Mickey Mouse’s arms at the first sight of his favorite Disney character. And, more importantly, Malanie can talk about how her family has not been the same since.

But what makes Melanie’s story even more unique is the fact that she can also speak from the other side of The Dream Factory as well – from the eyes of a volunteer who makes these dreams come true. Within five years, Melanie went from a dream family, to a volunteer within the San Antonio Chapter, to secretary and to the area coordinator, the top position within each chapter which is often referred to as the president. With Melanie at the helm, San Antonio hosted the National Convention in September 2014.

“Our dream happened back in 2009 and everyone in my entire family can tell you so many wonderful memories from that vacation, how much it changed our lives,” Melanie said. “When we got blessed like that, it changed us as a family and we wanted to do whatever we could to give back.”

Tagen, who turns twelve in October and has three sisters, was diagnosed with cerebral palsy in a unique situation because his brain scans didn't reveal the disorder but he shows most of the signs and symptoms. His doctors say Tagen is a one-of-a-kind person. Malanie describes him as a special boy who will just grab your heart from the first moment you see him.

Melanie and her husband, Rodney, first heard about The Dream Factory from family friends, who turned out to be the first to be granted a dream out of San Antonio back in 2008. Tagen was referred by the family to Paul Hunnicut, who was the chapter’s area coordinator at the time. It was perfect timing with San Antonio searching for a family to fill a slot at Wish Flight, which is a product of The Something Magic Foundation and sends dozens of families to Give Kids The World each fall. It is now referred to mAAgic Flight and is one of the most anticipated events for The Dream Factory each year. It is still difficult for Malanie to find words describing the experience.

“It was so exciting all the way around. They had a huge birthday party for Tagen, too, and made such a big deal about everything. From the time Paul first talked to us about the dream to all this building up, my son would just light up the whole time. The entire thing is really just like a dream, from the time they pick you up until you get back home, and even afterward. All of it was amazing.”

The family had a calendar and was counting down the days until the trip arrived. Finally, it did, and a limousine was waiting to take them to the airport, where the party awaited. Tagen was infatuated with Mickey Mouse. His specific dream was “to go to Mickey Mouse and play with him and to go to his house.”

For Melanie and Rodney, the best moment came on the first full day of the trip when they went to Disney World. Tagen was timid with some of the other characters they encountered, but not his favorite one, which they waited until later in the day so he could warm up to his surroundings for a while first.

“We often still talk about that,” Melanie said. “We were worried about what he would do when he saw Mickey Mouse because he’s afraid of big things and seeing a small Mickey on TV just wasn't the same as having this huge character walking around. But when Tagen saw him, he jumped out of his stroller and literally ran to him, and the thing is my son can’t run! It’s a moment you’ll never forget your entire life. To see my son’s excitement will be infused in my head forever.”

Following the trip, the Vales went to a Christmas party put on by the San Antonio Chapter for the dream families. It was then that Melanie said they first started to ask how they could help. From that point on, they started attending meetings and were involved in different events.

“There were just a few people on the board and we could see so much potential in this organization with the dedication from those involved,” Melanie said. “When you see that, you want it to grow. I think our excitement and love for this organization just grew and took over.”

Eventually, both Melanie and Rodney were voted on as board members – Melanie as the secretary and Rodney as the treasurer, a position he still holds. The first dream Melanie played a major part in granting was the mAAgic Flight child in 2012, making everything come full circle.

Janie, who was seven years old at the time, left San Antonio early in the morning along with her parents and sister to a memorable send-off party, helped orchestrated by Melanie and her own family. It was almost exactly three years after Tagen had the same dream.

“It was all so exciting, just like our dream,” Melanie said. “Going through the process of planning it takes a different sense when you know everything they’re going to experience and what exactly is going on. It’s really amazing to be on both sides, and is actually just as exciting as seeing my own son go through the same thing.”

Melanie pointed out that her family looks forward to mAAgic Flight each September to they can revisit their own experience each year. “It keeps our dream alive.”

Four years following her son’s dream, and one year after helping to grant Janie’s dream, Melanie was voted the new area coordinator of the San Antonio Chapter in September 2013. She attended her first National Convention that month in Kansas City, and her chapter hosted the next.

“You know? At first I thought there was no way I could be a leader of such a wonderful organization because I view this as all an incredible thing. The reason I’m in this position though is because of the fire I have inside of me that lives, dreams and breaths Dream Factory.”

Melanie said the San Antonio Chapter is small right now within a larger city and hopes that having the National Convention there will benefit them in the long run.

“You go to your first National Convention like I did last September and sit down there to hear about all the other chapters and the amount of fundraising and dreams they’re doing and it gets you excited,” she said. “There are so many kids here in San Antonio and so many opportunities so that’s what I want us to look like. We’re very excited to have everyone come to San Antonio.”

From the mother of a dream child to the top position within the chapter, Melanie wants to keep the momentum going while never forgetting what got her started in the first place.

 “So many people think that it’s just about getting a trip to Disney, but it’s really not – it’s about your entire life changing. Some people take it for just that trip, but if you allow it to then it grows in your heart and comes a part of your everyday life. A lot of days it’s the reason you even get up and go because you know there are other kids out there who you can change as much as it changed you.”

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