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Vanderbilt couple says nonprofit's clients make effort worthwhile

| Sunday, Dec. 15, 2013, 11:01 p.m.
Brian F. Henry | Tribune-Review
John Robinson of Vanderbilt, Fayette County stands for a portrait in the Tribune-Review photo studio on Wednesday, December 11, 2013. Robinson along with his wife Bobbi run the nonprofit Unity A Journey of Hope, which is like a local Make a Wish and pairs sick kids/people with celebrities.

Bobbi and John Robinson have come a long way since providing a terminally ill patient with crab cakes and a beer six years ago.

The Vanderbilt couple started a wish-fulfilment organization, Unity, a Journey of Hope, in 2007, offering services to John's patients. John Robinson, 52, is a hospice nurse for ViaQuest Hospice in Monongahela.

Their first “unofficial” wish was for a patient who just wanted a special meal before he died. Fast forward to their most recent wish — providing a 24-year-old testicular cancer survivor with a trip to a concert to meet Michael Buble.

“We wanted to do something for the patients I had,” John Robinson said of the origin of the Fayette County nonprofit.

Bobbi Robinson, 56, came along for the ride and now handles many of the 40 to 80 hours of work each week to make each wish come true.

“Well, sometimes you just don't have a choice; it just happened, and it became a passion,” she said. “We make it happen. I think we do a lot of the impossible.”

No wish is too large for the group to grant, John Robinson said. From meeting Buble to Bret Michaels and Bruce Springsteen, the couple and their core group of eight to 10 volunteers plugs away until the wishes are granted.

The group takes wishes from anyone within 100 miles of their Vanderbilt base. They check with a physician regarding the patient's life-limiting illness and to make sure the wish is safe to be carried out.

“We don't pick them; they pick us,” John Robinson said.

Not every wish is meeting a famous celebrity. They also have fielded requests for Christmas carolers to show up at a front door and to take a patient roller skating before cancer advances too far.

The volunteers often turn to the community for fundraising and donations to help grant requests, such as asking for rented tuxes and flowers for a last-minute wedding.

“We don't have the luxury of waiting a year or two to plan,” John Robinson said. “When we get our wishes, it needs to be expedited.”

So far, the group has granted 160 wishes.

But they still need more help from the public, John Robinson said, including a working board and a corporate sponsor to help move wishes forward. He would like to raise awareness of the group, which he says many local people don't know about.

“There have been many times I've said, ‘Why am I doing this, beating my head against the wall, trying to make these things happen?' ” Bobbi Robinson said. “Every time I say I'm done, all I have to do is look at those people's faces.”

John Robinson said each recipient has taught him something.

“Family is the most important thing,” he said. Many terminally ill patients ask simply for a trip with their families or a last Christmas, he said.

The work has been a lifelong goal for John, who always dreamed of being able to walk into a store and purchase Christmas for an entire family.

“The most important thing we do ... is give hope when hope has been taken away by illness,” he said.

Kate Wilcox is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-836-6155 or

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