It would be terribly easy to underestimate Caitlin Crommett.
Sitting opposite her in a booth at LaFortune, you see a young woman who radiates so much sweetness she could give the Disney princesses a run for their money. She wears multiple silver rings on her fingers. She seems impossibly young.
And then she hits you with the kind of existential zinger that you expect from someone with a lot more of life’s experiences under her belt: “At the end of a person’s life, what it really comes down to is family. For most people, their biggest dream is to see their loved ones one more time.”
Crommett, 19, knows quite a lot about final wishes. You could say the Mendoza College sophomore has made them her business.
She was just 12 when she began singing with her sister, Lexi, at memorial services for hospice patients in her hometown in Orange County, Calif. A frequent request was “A Thousand Miles” by Vanessa Carlton, which has the haunting refrain: “’Cause you know I’d walk a thousand miles/If I could just see you tonight.”
“I saw the simple effect a song would have on these families, and it made me want to do more,” she says.
It was August 2009, the summer before her junior year of high school, when she figured out what that “more” would be. She was watching Patch Adams one evening—the 1998 movie starring Robin Williams as an unconventional doctor who resorts to pranks and hijinks as a way of treating his patients’ spirits as well as their bodies. In one scene, he helps an elderly woman who won’t eat fulfill her dream of swimming in a pool full of pasta.
The idea hit her: She could start a wish-granting type foundation for hospice patients. She wrote up a plan, created a PowerPoint presentation and before long was standing in front of the board of directors of a local hospice organization. The DreamCatchers Foundation was born.
The DreamCatchers set-up was fairly simple: Crommett contacted local hospice agencies with the proposal to fulfill dreams for interested patients. Hospice workers fill out a “dream request form” and forward it to Crommett. Then it was up to her to figure out how to make the dream happen.
She had a brief moment of panic when the idea was met with a very enthusiastic response. “It occurred to me, what if someone wished for something big? Like a trip to Hawaii?” Crommett relied totally on volunteer help—mostly from fellow students at Tesoro High School—and donated goods and services. How was she going to reject a final wish because it seemed too difficult?
And the very first dream request was a bit of a doozy. Bernie was a hospice patient suffering from the degenerative muscular disorder ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease. A lifelong sailor, he dreamed of getting out on the water one last time. By this point, he was fairly debilitated and relied on the use of a heavy wheelchair that would have to be lifted into the boat. He also wanted to have his family with him—about 20 members.
Crommett called a lot of companies that chartered boats to ask for a discounted rate. After numerous rejections, one owner said, sure, and he would help crew the boat. (That’s how Crommett met Edward A. Taub, a noted physician known as “America’s Wellness Doctor.”) Bernie, his family, Crommett and the crew spent two hours cruising the waters around Dana Point on the schooner Curlew. Bernie, already six months beyond his life expectancy, passed away about two months later. Before his death, his wife posted a note to the DreamCatchers’ website: “Bernie has not had much to smile about these past few years, but today he was smiling throughout the entire (sailing) trip. Thank you, thank you, thank you for such a nice day.”
(There also is a note posted from the real Patch Adams: “A friend sent me the article about your being inspired by the movie of my life and it made me smile. Bravo.”)
It was about at this point that Caitlin had the epiphany about the stuff that dreams really are made of. Bernie’s dream was to go sailing—but not really. As everyone gathered on the boat, enjoying the day right along with Bernie, she realized “dreams” for most people boil down to the fairly simple truth mentioned earlier:
“They don’t want huge dreams for themselves. They just want their family.”
Since its inception, DreamCatchers has granted wishes to about 50 dying patients and involved more than 100 family members. Most of them have been on the modest side: a rib dinner with loved ones gathered around, being reunited with a long-lost sibling, a country music concert performed in the hospice’s community room. For one patient who had been a world traveler, Crommett organized the patient’s old-fashioned slides into a photo album, and spent Sunday after Sunday listening to the stories that went along with them.
DreamCatchers, incorporated as a nonprofit foundation in 2010, has grown in the last year from one club at Crommett’s own high school to more than 25 clubs at high schools and colleges across the U.S. When Crommett traveled to Notre Dame as a Hesburgh-Yusko Scholar—a prestigious merit-based scholarship and leadership development program—so did DreamCatchers.
Crommett, a double major in business entrepreneurship and theater, and fellow Hesburgh-Yusko scholar Katie McElligott, vice president of the ND DreamCatchers chapter who plans to double major in finance and economics, took a five-week road trip this summer. Together, they visited five cities to set up new chapters in colleges and high schools. Getting students involved is another vital part of the DreamCatchers’ mission, which is to provide a generational bridge. Although DreamCatchers doesn’t specify age requirements, the realities of hospice care means that most of the clients are older.
“They’ve given so much to our generation,” she says. “DreamCatchers is a way for young people to interact with them and to give back.”
DreamCatchers provides some modest startup funds to seed each new club. It is then responsible for its own fund-raising. Thanks to her business training, Crommett is also working on securing several corporate sponsorships to ensure the organization’s economic longevity.
She has big dreams herself, which may take her in some unusual directions.
“I’ve wanted to be an actress my whole life. If I were lucky enough to become well known, I could use that to help publicize DreamCatchers.”
Caitlin Crommett had been a collector of dream catchers for years as a way of honoring her Native American heritage. so when naming her dream-fulfillment venture, both the item's origin and its meaning made DreamCatchers the perfect choice.
Traditionally fashioned from a willow hoop and leather sinew, and decorated with feathers and beads, the dream catcher's design was intended to suggest a spider web that offered protection from nighmares. Interpretations of how this works vary by tribe. (Hung over a bed, the web either catches bad dreams so they can't bother the sleeper, or conversely it catches good dreams so only they remain.)
Caitlin prefers the "good dream" version, saying: "Our Dream Team uses the dreamcatcher to find the good dreams and get them to our patient." Learn more about the DreamCatchers Foundation at DreamCatchers1.com.
The ND Newswire recently featured Caitlin Crommett and DreamCatchers