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Heroes

Meet the Cancer Survivor Who Is Making Dreams Come True for Senior Citizens

Updated

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Opal Harrison didn’t have much.

Of course she didn’t need much, living in B’Nai Brith senior living housing, in Peoria, Illinois.

But like everyone else, she had dreams. Hers weren’t to go to Disneyland or wear haute couture or meet a celebrity. Opal’s dream was to have someone make her breakfast every day for a month. She also thought it would be swell to have a break from paying her monthly rent.

Her part-time caregiver and full-time friend Debbie Davison was so touched by those dreams, she decided to do something about them in celebration of Opal’s 100th birthday.

On July 19, 2005, Opal’s dreams – one month of breakfast and three months of paid rent – became reality. And so did the idea for Dreams for Seniors , a non-profit organization that has granted dreams to seniors in the two states where Davison splits her time, Florida and Illinois. So far she’s helped grant wishes for more than 100 people.

Olive Watson and Debbie Davison
Debbie Davison

“My breast cancer history, being diagnosed when I was 41 years old, gave me an urgency to make my love for seniors count,” says Davison, founder of a home health care business. “Dreams for Seniors volunteers receive so much more than we give.”

Davison is no stranger to giving to those in need.

She’s a 20-plus year volunteer at Dream Factory, which grants dreams to chronically ill children. And she puts that experience to use in her organization that grants dreams.

“Dreams for Seniors has changed people’s lives,” said Mitch Forrest, caseworker, Central Illinois Agency on Aging, Peoria, who has referred 10-plus people to Davison. “They’ve helped lots of different people with dreams that are truly essential services – home repairs, utilities, treating infestations, that sort of thing.”

Debbie Davison and Opal Harrison
Debbie Davison

Although the dreams are modest, Forrest said that many seniors would go without if Davison and her volunteers didn’t act. And, he said, Davison and the other volunteers act quickly, often granting dreams in a matter of days.

Valerie Bohlander, wife of the NASCAR Hall of Fame member Don Bohlander, recalled how her late husband’s dream was to have a voice amplifier to be used in support groups for patients with Parkinson’s disease. Almost as soon as Davison received the request, she fulfilled the dream.

“That amplifier was a lifeline for so many people. It just breathed new life into the support group,” said Bohlander, whose husband died in 2015. “It’s the first nice donation the group ever received.”

Some dreams are even more personal.

Ruby Eschman of Mapleton, Illinois, wasn’t able to bring her husband Galen, 90, a World War II veteran, home after he fell and broke vertebrae in his back. DFS volunteer Kathy Carson told Debbie of the need. In August 2016, about a week after the request was made, a ramp was built at the Eschman home.

“I was looking for a ramp and called everywhere and just couldn’t get one,” said Ruby Eschman, whose husband has had various setbacks in recent weeks. “When we got the ramp, we were able to bring him home…and sat in the kitchen and enjoyed everything. The ramp is wonderful. I don’t know what we would have done without Debbie.”

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Of course some dreams are just fun for both the honoree and the family.

George Watson, 79 and his wife Glenna Watson, 76, of Wildwood, Florida, wanted to honor his mother Olive Watson, who turned 105 on Aug. 20, 2016. When Dreams for Seniors hosted a birthday party to celebrate Olive’s milestone, it gave the Watson family time to relax and watch Olive enjoy small pleasures such as a memory book of photos, a birthday cake, a gift certificate for hair care, and visits from about 30 family members and friends.

“I had to laugh,” said Glenna Watson of the moment when Olive’s wheelchair was pulled away from the table. “She loves candy and she had eaten too many Hershey’s Kisses — the silver wrappers were all over the floor! There’s no telling how many of those she ate! We thought it was wonderful and she thoroughly enjoyed herself.”

Although the inspiration for Dreams for Seniors, Opal Harrison, died at age 102, Davison said she lived long enough to see the non-profit to make an impact.

“Opal was so thrilled with her dream,” said Davison, who founded the non-profit almost as soon as Opal’s dream was granted. “She was most thrilled that she was the inspiration for a charity for seniors that would go on long after she received her special dream.”