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Never Say Never

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Einstein the camel licked his lips, chewed his cud and carried 83-year-old Evelyn Roberts not across some remote expanse of North African desert but through the parking lot of Sunny Hill Skilled Rehab Center, a nursing home in Joliet, Ill. A few weeks earlier Roberts, who is wheelchair-bound and suffers from liver cancer, had told a social worker, “I’d love to ride a camel someday.” She didn’t expect anyone to actually find her a camel in Joliet. But on Sept. 16, 200 locals and Sunny Hill residents looked on as Einstein took Roberts for a few laps around the lot.

“I’ve wished for a lot of nutty things in my life—this one actually went somewhere,” says Roberts, who is divorced and childless. “This has been the greatest day in my 83 years.”

That’s just the kind of response Paula “P.K.” Beville hoped for when she started Second Wind Dreams, a nonprofit that does for seniors what the Make-A-Wish Foundation does for seriously ill children: makes their dreams come true. Since 1997, Second Wind has fulfilled the fantasies of hundreds of seniors, some as far away as India.

A 105-year-old man got to ride in a hot-air balloon; an 88-year-old ex-jazz singer took the mike once again in a Memphis club; a 99-year-old got an honorary college degree she had first sought in 1928. “Depression is epidemic in nursing homes and assisted living,” says Beville, 51, a geriatric psychologist. “We know people are less depressed when they still have hopes and dreams. I feel like it’s our job to unlock them.”

Her passion is infectious. “She represents all that is good about our field,” says Julian Rich, CEO of Penacook Place, in Haverhill, Mass., a nonprofit nursing home that joined Second Wind three years ago. “She’s committed, empathetic and understanding.”

Beville doesn’t do it alone. Second Wind involves a loose confederation of 2,000 volunteers at nursing homes and senior living centers who operate more or less independently, with Beville and chief operating officer Jan Nelson offering logistical and networking support. Volunteers interview seniors about their dreams, then decide which can realistically be fulfilled. Most are modest, like the woman in Georgia who simply wanted to hear some kids sing “Oh Susanna.” Beville sees it as the least she can do. “Seventy percent of nursing-home patients get no visitors in a year,” she notes. “These are people who built our roads, got us where we are.”

Her own route has had some bumps—most recently when the remnants of hurricane Ivan flooded her Alpharetta, Ga., offices, damaging most of her computers and phones. Adversity struck Beville early, when a bout with polio at 5 left her paralyzed from the neck down. She recovered but still suffers neck discomfort as well as lupus and Crohn’s disease, autoimmune disorders that at times keep her bedridden. “She’s lived with pain her whole life,” says her husband, John, 57, a bank vice president. “But the heart is stronger than the body.”

The inspiration for Second Wind came several years ago, while she was counseling seniors at nursing homes and heard their suppressed desires. “They’d come out with, ‘I’d like to visit the graveside of my wife,’ ‘I’d like a new blanket,’ ‘I’d like a meal out,’ ” Beville says. “I’d think, why can’t we do this?”

In January 1997 she made her first stab at wish-fulfillment—a set of 90-something twin sisters wanted a happy hour and an Elvis impersonator. Four years ago Beville, who with John has three grown children, gave up a six-figure income to do dreams-for free. She supports the group largely with donations and fees from speaking around the country to geriatric specialists. “We owe it to ourselves to make the end of life better and not let people wither away,” she says. “We’re saying, ‘You’re special, we want to make you feel special, and we want you to remember this forever.’ ”

Richard Jerome. Deborah Geering in Atlanta and Noah Isackson in Joliet