Improving Lives, One Wish at a Time

September 10, 2013

Meet Good Neighbor Finalist Kristina Rhodes, who goes the extra mile to make dreams come true for sick children in her community.

Emily Jones was a fighter. Even when faced with an aggressive form of cancer, the 11-year-old never gave up her passions: her love of animals, food (crab legs were her favorite), family, fun, and all things bling. Emily was also one of Kristina Rhodes’ biggest inspirations.

Rhodes is a devoted volunteer for Make-A-Wish, an organization that grants wishes to children with life-threatening medical conditions. The first time she met Emily was in an effort to fulfill the young girl’s wish — a Caribbean cruise.

Rhodes, who was adopted as a baby, was inspired to get involved with Make-A-Wish by her birth mother, who volunteered in Fort Wayne, Ind. When she found out that Make-A-Wish only had one other volunteer in southern Indiana, Rhodes decided to grow the organization’s presence in her community. But she did much more than raise awareness; Rhodes grew her southern Indiana Make-A-Wish outpost to include hundreds of supporters. She even assembled a regional council — the first regional fundraising group of its kind, which has become a model for other Make-A-Wish chapters. Rhodes has helped raise nearly a half-million dollars in donations and an innumerable amount of in-kind contributions, as well as granting more than 80 wishes in the region. But Emily is the one that really stands out for Rhodes.

“When you have a situation like Emily’s and you’re able to spend time with the family and get to know them, it really teaches you something,” Rhodes said. “Emily taught me about what’s really important in life and helped me keep things in perspective.”

Emily was diagnosed with T-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia on Sept. 24, 2012. That fall and winter, she and her doctors battled the disease with chemotherapy and radiation until it was nearly in remission. But the cancer was aggressive and came back in the spring. Emily’s doctors decided to pursue a bone marrow transplant, and even found a donor. Sadly, Emily’s white blood cell count never got to the levels required for the transplant. She also never became well enough to travel for her cruise.

So what did Rhodes do? Since Emily wasn’t able to fulfill her original wish, Rhodes brought the cruise to Emily. On her own, Rhodes arranged for her friend to take Emily, along with close friends, out for a pontoon ride on the Ohio River. To send her off, 50 of Emily’s teachers, classmates, friends, and family dressed in Hawaiian outfits, and each person placed a lei around Emily’s neck before she boarded the boat. It wasn’t long before Emily was swimming in leis.

“Kristina is an amazing lady who has taken this organization to another level,” said Kathy Scoettlin, chief community relations and social responsibility officer at Old National Bank, who also serves on the Make-A-Wish regional council. “She has unwavering passion for the cause, and her ultimate goal is all about fulfilling wishes; she doesn’t let anything muddy the waters or get in her way.”

Despite missing her cruise, Emily did receive a wish from Make-A-Wish. The organization helped her adopt her own dog – a small Pomeranian mix that happens to look just like Max, the Grinch’s dog in Dr. Seuss’ popular story. Emily picked out the pup using the Warrick Humane Society’s Web site from her hospital bed. On Aug. 8, 2013, Emily and her family found out she was going home. So Rhodes sprang into action again, picking up the dog — which Emily named Sally Cookie — along with a bed, crate, food, treats, and a leash, and had it all waiting for Emily when she got home from the hospital.

“Kristina is a fantastic volunteer; as soon as she walked into the room, I knew I was going to like her. She’s so personable and so sweet,” said Tracy Jones, Emily’s mom. “She lives and breathes [Make-A-Wish], and she absolutely loves these kids.”

Due to the cancer, Emily developed Bell’s palsy, which made her unable to smile. But Emily’s family saw smiles peek through when Emily was with Sally Cookie.

“That was the happiest she had been in a long time,” said Jones. “This must have been Sally’s calling because she and Emily bonded so well. She’d go lay with Emily, and all she wanted to do was cuddle with her, and that’s what they did.”

Having the dog by her side helped Emily relax and take her mind off her illness – which is what Make-A-Wish is all about. “Make-A-Wish is about joy,” said Rhodes. “When a child gets a wish, it’s something for them to look forward to and it’s a distraction from all that day-to-day stuff they have to tolerate. They see there’s something good in their future.”

Rhodes also has helped a 5-year-old meet the president and another young boy meet the pope. A little boy named Sam played baseball with his favorite Yankee players, and his sister Sophie, who suffers from the same rare skin disease, went on an American Girl doll shopping spree on Rodeo Drive.

“The children are so inspiring and so brave and so courageous; every family I meet is grateful, and that, still to this day, overwhelms me,” Rhodes said.

A family can be referred to Make-A-Wish through a doctor or social worker. Sometimes parents are leery at first because they think the organization only deals with terminal cases, but that’s not the case, said Rhodes. The majority of children do recover.

Sadly, Emily did not recover. She passed away on Aug. 17, less than a year after her cancer diagnosis.

“I miss her dearly,” said Jones. “She taught me a lot in the 11 months [of her illness], and I’m proud of her for having the courage to go through what she did.”

Rhodes credits her brokerage, F.C. Tucker Emge, REALTORS®, which supports more than 100 local charities, for encouraging her volunteerism. “We want to make Evansville a better place to live and raise a family, and you have to do more than just sell real estate to do that,” she said.

—By Erica Christoffer

Contact Kristina Rhodes at or via e-mail at Learn more about Make-A-Wish at