When Jamie Holmes was 15, she was scheduled for surgery -- one of the 45 operations she has had in her 25 years. Back then, the White Oak teen told her parents that if she lived through the surgery, she wanted to help others.
"When I was in the hospital, I would give other kids my gifts. I always wanted to help others," said Ms. Holmes, who was born with Vater syndrome. Those born with the syndrome often have congenital abnormalities of the vertebrae, lower intestines, trachea, esophagus and kidneys. Ms. Holmes' surgeries included reconstruction of her esophagus, trachea and the fusion of several vertebrae.
At age 17, after graduating from McKees-port Area High School, she started Jamie's Dream Team, a nonprofit that works to grant the dreams of individuals who are terminally ill, disabled, severely injured or suffering from a serious medical condition.
Working with the team is what drives her each day.
"I've never looked at myself as having a problem because I was never treated as if I had a problem," Ms. Holmes said.
Even with all of the surgeries, she said, she managed to do what typical girls do: hang out with friends, shop, go to the movies. After graduation, she started studies at Community College of Allegheny County but had to leave because of illness. So she embarked on a career to make the dreams of others come true.
Ms. Holmes lives with her parents, Kimberly and Tony Shidel. Her sister, Kayla Shidel, lives nearby. "We are a close-knit family and they are very supportive," she said. Her mom is on the board of directors of Jamie's Dream Team, as is her grandmother, Bonnie Cottone.
To launch the dream team, which was founded in 2005, "Jamie started out using my mom's checkbook," recalled her mother with a laugh. "Then she found an attorney and filed to become a ... nonprofit."
The attorney, Linda Plum of Elizabeth Borough, is still with the team and serves as treasurer on the board of directors.
The first dream Ms. Holmes granted was for a 5-year-old girl, Mallory Oross, who had neuroblastoma, a form of cancer. Mallory, the daughter of Kim and Dave Oross of West Mifflin, loved princesses. So, Ms. Holmes dressed up as a princess and took a Santa Claus and gifts to Mallory. She later held a princess party for the little girl before she died at age 6.
Cindy and Al Harff of North Huntingdon learned about Jamie's Dream Team when they were helping with a community effort to renovate a home in their township for a 21-year-old who had leukemia, and Ms. Holmes' team helped obtain furniture for the house.
"When my son Tim wanted to donate the funds from his musical Christmas light show to a local organization, I said, 'What about that Jamie's Dream Team?' " Mrs. Harff recalled. She emailed Ms. Holmes.
"She had just gotten out of the hospital from a major surgery. I told her my son wanted to donate the funds from the light display. She was so excited," Mrs. Harff said. "Then we met her and fell in love with her."
The Harff family has donated the money from their light display for the past two years, with last year's total reaching about $3,000.
"We put a box outside for donations and we've received not only donations but notes in the box saying thank you for helping Jamie's Dream Team," Mrs. Harff said.
Last year, Ms. Holmes asked Mrs. Harff to go on a "dream" with her to see how the donations are used. After seeing the work firsthand, Mrs. Harff has become more involved as a volunteer.
Now, Ms. Holmes considers the Harffs her second family.
"What she does is just amazing," Mrs. Harff said. "If she finds out someone is sick, she'll call me and say, 'Can we do this?' and I'll say 'Sure!' You may as well just get on board because she doesn't take no for an answer."
Ms. Holmes' determination comes from knowing that many dreams can't be delayed.
Mrs. Harff quotes Ms. Holmes as frequently saying: "When someone is sick, they can't wait."
"She just gets on the phone and finds people and gets them on board," Mrs. Harff said.
Recently, Jamie's Dream Team planned a princess ball for Kaeleigh Beregi, 9, of Greensburg, who also has neuroblastoma. Mrs. Harff said the event typically would take months to plan, but Ms. Holmes led the effort to hold the ball on March 10 at Ferrante's Lakeview in Hempfield. Kaeleigh was treated not only to a party with a tiered cake, but she also got to wear a princess dress, sit on a throne and ride in a horse-drawn carriage.
Ms. Holmes has taken work crews to Kentucky to restore a home that was filled with mold for a boy on a ventilator; built a backyard playground for two young sisters who were seriously ill; sent a mom who had breast cancer to Disney World with her family; and fulfilled many other requests.
The Kentucky project was one of the toughest to pull off, she recalled. The young boy using a ventilator was in a home filled with black mold. "We had to go in and re-do the house," Ms. Holmes said. "84 Lumber jumped on board in November. They wanted the family in by Christmas. We took crews down there to work on the house. I've never seen grown men cry the way they did. They didn't want to leave. Our volunteers are involved 100 percent."
Ms. Holmes was given the keys to the city of Paintsville, Ky., for the team's efforts.
Accolades have abounded for this young philanthropist. She was a KDKA "Hometown Hero" and one of Whirl Magazine's "13 under 30." This month, she received A Champion Enterprises Heroes Annual Pittsburgh and Allegheny County Public Service Award. Also this month, she received proclamations for her work from Allegheny County Councilman Bob Macey on behalf of council and from White Oak council.
"She's grateful for the awards," Mrs. Harff said, "but she has told me that her reward is seeing the person's face when she grants their dream."
Ms. Holmes credits the people who donate and volunteer.
"It's the kindness of people. We are a team and there's no 'I' in team."
On days when she doesn't feel well, she doesn't complain, Mrs. Harff said.
"When I don't having anything going on, I feel sick," Ms. Holmes said. "It's my mom who keeps me going. We fight like sisters, but get the job done."
When a dream recipient dies, all of the team members are saddened.
"We get attached," Ms. Shidel said. "But we know we made a life good ... and most of the time, we have a long relationship with the families."
Ms. Holmes and the team currently are working on a dream wedding for Alyssa Boyle. Ms. Boyle of Salem, Ohio, and a fellow nursing student stopped to help an accident victim on Interstate 79 in February 2012. After rescuing the driver, the three jumped off the overpass on which they were standing to avoid a tractor-trailer that was heading for them. The fall left Ms. Boyle paralyzed from the waist down.
But Ms. Holmes said Ms. Boyle is determined to walk down the aisle Sept. 7 in a fairy tale wedding to her fiance Nathan Grimmes at Avion on the Water in Canfield, Ohio.
Jamie's Dream Team is working on the details.
For more information on the team and its projects: www.jamiesdreamteam.org.
Jill Thurston, freelance writer: email@example.com.