We can’t control what life is going to throw at us, but we can control how we react about them. If we allow negative things to get the best of us, then we limit what we could give to the world. Proving this to be true, Jen Du Plessis invites over the one and only Frank Shankwitz. Frank is best known as the creator, co-founder, and first president/CEO of the Make-A-Wish Foundation—an extraordinary charity that grants wishes to children with life-threatening illnesses. Learning from an early age that giving back doesn’t have to be just about financial generosity, Frank has constantly relied on his other strengths to be of help to others. He always turns a negative into a positive and now has become the Wish Man, providing hope to many people and creating a positive impact on the world. Frank shares with us his story and how he put his servant’s heart into action. He tells us his breakthroughs, his inspirations, and his hopes for the future. Inspiring others to make a difference, Frank then gives some advice on how to help beyond our financial capacity.
Listen to the podcast here:
From Negative To Positive: Giving Back And Making A Difference With Frank Shankwitz
I’m excited because I am going to be speaking with Frank Shankwitz. I want to tell you all about Frank. If you don’t know the name, I know you know Make-A-Wish Foundation and it will all come together. Let me honor Frank by telling you about him. He is the Creator, Co-founder, President, and CEO of the Make-A-Wish Foundation. He was in the Air Force, so thank you for your service. He was part of the Arizona Highway Patrol for 42 years and then became a homicide detective. I’m sure there are some stories there for us as well.Character and integrity are developed, not inherited. Click To Tweet
Two presidents have recognized you with a White House Call To Service Award. You also got the Making A Difference in the World Award from the US Military at West Point. You have two honorary Doctorates, one in Public Service and the other in Law. You have been in Forbes Magazine as one of the top keynote speakers in the country or in the world. You have your own star in Las Vegas. You have your own star in Arizona. It goes on and on. I hope I can grow up one day to be like you. I don’t want to bore everybody with everything. It is absolutely amazing what this man has done. Frank, thank you so much for being here.
I appreciate the invite.
As a charter founding guest, this is what makes it powerful is that several years from now, we’ll look back on this and say, “Isn’t that awesome?” The biggest thing I need to say to make sure everybody understands is that based on your life, a movie was released a few years ago and I was fortunate enough to be at the second premiere, which was in your hometown or at least in your home state, with you. That’s called Wish Man. It’s a portrayal of your entire life. It definitely needs to be there. You have a book of the same name. That’s going to tell a lot about your story. What I want to know is maybe something directly from you and something that’s not based on your life, but that is your life. Thinking back on your life, talk to us, or share with us about a time that was interesting or challenging that formed who you are now.
I was born in Chicago. At two years old, my mother divorced my father and left. I never had any idea where she went in those years. From 2 to 5, I had very happy times with my father, my grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. At five years old on a kindergarten playground, a lady grabbed me. I had no idea who she was. She said, “I’m your mother. You’re going with me.” Kicking and screaming, I have dragged off this playground. The next five years were very challenging. She went to Northern Michigan and at certain times, we lived in a tent, in a car, in flophouses during the winter. The whole thing was survival. I was always alone. She would go to work at night. She’d go wherever she goes. I was on my own, hunger, food. I learned during that time how to start taking care of myself.
At ten years old, my father found us and went into town to get the local sheriff to have her arrested. During that time, she threw everything we had in the car and went to Arizona where she originally wanted to go anyhow. At ten years old, I started a whole new chapter in my life. We ended up in a little town called Seligman, Arizona. Outside of town, we completely ran out of gas money. It was the first time I had ever seen her cry. A rancher stopped by and asked her, “What’s wrong?” She told them the story. He said, “I’ll get you some gas, follow me.” For the next six months, we lived in his ranch house. It was a very small ranch house. We had to sleep on the kitchen floor at night. This was the first time we were in this little town of Seligman with 500 people, predominantly Mexican-Indian. It’s a railroad town, a ranchy town. I got a job at ten years old washing dishes full-time.
My mother worked as a motel maid. I was watching a Mexican gentleman across the street building something. I went over and said, “What are you doing?” He said, “What’s your name?” I said, “Frankie.” He said, “From now on, you’re Pancho,” meaning Frank in Spanish. “Grab a hammer, kid.” I never had a father figure during this time. I said, “I don’t know what to do. What do you mean grab a hammer?” “I’m going to teach you.” Juan became my father figure. We would highlight him in the movie. This mentorship started for the next several years. This man developed my character and my integrity. I always like to say those three traits are not inherited. They’re developed. It’s a big important change in my life. Through the next few years, he introduced me to music and sports, something I never got involved with.You don't have to have money to give back. You can give back through your time. Click To Tweet
There was a school that all of a sudden, I could go through grade school up through eighth grade. That was the big difference in my life. He always taught me during that time, “Frank, you can give back.” This is in the ‘50s and it’s a popular term now. “What do you mean? We’re poor. People are helping us.” He said, “Exactly. For example, look at the widow, Mrs. Sanchez. She’s always trying to bring you and your mom beans and tortillas to help you out. Look at her yard. It’s full of weeds. It’s a mess. Look at her front porch. You know how to take care of that. You can give back. You don’t have to have money to give back. You can give back to your time,” which is the lesson that stuck with me my whole life, even now. When I started seventh grade, my mother said, “I can’t afford you anymore. You’re on your own,” and left.
I went to Juan, “What am I going to do?” This was a big lesson he taught me. This is in the ‘50s. “Learn how to turn those negatives into positives.” “What do you mean, Juan? I’m homeless all of a sudden.” He said, “I know what’s happening and I’ve arranged for the widow Sanchez that you’re going to stay with her. You’re going to pay her $20 a week room and board. The big thing that’s positive is that you make $26 a week.” Every money I ever made went to my mother. “For the first time in your life, you’re going to have $6 a week on your own.” That’s a lot of money for a kid in seventh grade. “For the first time, you’re going to have your own room. You’re going to have indoor plumbing. She’s the best cook in town.” That was a true statement. All those negatives into positives. The other big thing was she got the first television set in Seligman, Arizona. That’s a big bonus. This mentorship taught me these things. I’ve used this my whole life. When people say you can’t do something and it won’t work, figure out that negative and turn that into positive.
It makes such an impression when you’re a young child, regardless of what someone’s saying too. People in my personal life had a lot of negative given to me as a small child and that formed me versus having that positive. Where do you think that Juan learned that?
From the Mexican heritage. He and his family were extremely hard workers. The other thing he taught me is the work ethic and always be the best. It almost sounds like the Army commercial, “Be the best you can be, always be the cleanest, and always be the neatest.” Even though we were extremely poor, we always stand up straight. We could go to the Santa Fe locker rooms to wash our clothes while we shower. He taught us that. We always had clean clothes. It’s things like that.
I’ve been around you several times and I know that of you. You’re a very proud man. You also have the biggest heart. It’s amazing how big your heart is. He taught you a lot of things to turn you into a man and one who respects women and all of those wonderful things. What do you think was the catalyst that moved you into the servant heart that you have?
Going into high school, I moved out from Seligman to Prescott, Arizona where I live now. My mother contacted me, “I need help. I can’t afford. You need to come here and work full-time.” In high school, all of a sudden, the coaches and my teachers saw something. Especially for football, the coaches saw something and would practice with me after actual practice to help develop these skills. My teachers, I wasn’t quite up to par in mathematics to go from grade school into high school. In fact, back in eighth grade, my football coach who was also a math teacher in school said, “We’re not going to let that happen,” and tutored me all summer. I took the test before the school year and passed to do that. I was going to hold my employers during high school. The same thing growing, the instructors probably saw something special and helped me develop.
I was honored I got stationed in England for several years. This is during the Vietnam era, but our bombers were sent to England. I was chosen because of these people that helped me to be part of the base honor guard. That was only a three-man team out of all these things. The biggest thing for me was I studied World War II history, both European and Pacific. I was a big fan of Winston Churchill. I was honored to be selected. Unfortunately, Winston Churchill passed away. I was on his honor guard, in fact, the final leg of the honor guard. These people saw something special. Because of that, I always tried to be the best I could be to pay back to these people.
You definitely continue to do that. When you look back on your life now, when you look at all the breakthroughs that you had because you had a lot of breakthroughs, what are you most proud of?
To have created and started the Make-A-Wish Foundation. It’s a legacy. I never looked for a legacy. I never looked for rewards or any recognition. It’s all about the kids but I do have to look back. I get many contacts, especially with this movie right now. I’m not boasting, but I’m getting 20 to 30 personal messages every day from all over the world that people being impacted by this movie. Messages from either Wish families are special to me or wish children that had been impacted by this. We started this many years ago.
When we were at the premiere, even one of the people that were with us at our retreat at the Airbnb, his daughter was a Wish child. Now, she is a nurse at that same hospital.
At St. Joseph’s, yes.
I know you must be very proud of that. I wanted to ask you this, did you see any part of you as a child in little Michael? He was called Michael in the movie.
His real name was Chris. Remember, it’s based on a true story. They had to change his name.
Did you see anything in him that drew you to work with him and go above and beyond to give him a great wish or was it just what was instilled in you that you have to help people?
I was a highway patrol motorcycle officer during this period. I’m also on a special ten-men accident team called The Fatal Team. We got trained and we investigate the most horrific accidents involving many children. Many children die unfortunately in these accidents. To meet this little boy who is dying with only a couple of weeks to live and to be able to do something special for him before he died, which we don’t get to do in these accidents, that was the catalyst. I’m like, “We can do something as we did for him for these other children.” When we started this, unfortunately, it was for children with terminal illnesses. Twenty-five years or so, the mission was changed to children with life-threatening illnesses because through the grace of God and modern medicine, more and more children are surviving. It was just, “Here’s one child. We got that wish. Let’s do that for other children.”
I didn’t know the depth of that. I’m glad I asked the question because it’s from your perspective. It’s, “What could I do?” It’s something that you learned as a child. How can you help him? What can you do? I absolutely love that. Let me ask you this, who inspires you?
This whole new world of friends that I have right now. They’re encouraging, suggesting, accolades. I can’t believe the accolades. It’s never about me, but my wife pushed me along. I get tired sometimes. She says, “Look at this event. Look at how you can help other people.” I sit on seven boards of nonprofits around the nation, which allows me, as Juan said, to give back. Remember he was saying, “You don’t have to have money to give back. Give back your time, anything you can do to help people.” I’m a retired cop but I am giving back by time to help them develop and enhance all these nonprofits.
Since you mentioned Kitty, let’s talk about her. She’s the love of your life. She’s a great sounding board for you. She’s fun and funny. What does she do to inspire you every day that you’re with her?
I pointed this out in the book. We knew each other. She was a secretary for the highway patrol. She was on our traveling squad when all ten of us were out of town. She would write all her reports and so we knew each other. I was going through a divorce. All divorces are bad, custody issues, and that. I say that Kitty found me when I needed to be found. It was in the movie that in fact I was killed in the line of duty and brought back to life. She was the one who signed because we’re in a remote area, no hospitals to even go to in an ambulance or helicopter. She stayed with me a couple of days to make sure I didn’t go into shock.
We were friends at that time. All these years later, she said, “We’d been married for a long time, maybe I should have let you go into shock.” All that inspiration, she was a board member. She’s one of the founding members of the Make-A-Wish Foundation. I was working many hours trying to put this together. I never took a salary. All the money went to the foundation. I would say, “I’m tired. I can’t do this anymore.” “No. There are other children. We need to help these people.” My whole life married to her, it’s always the same thing, “Get this project done.” The movie, I’m getting so exhausted, “We’ve got to get this finished.”
I know it was tough to get it over to that finish line too. There are a lot of challenges that happened during that finish line. When we’re talking about the breakthroughs and things that people go through and that you’ve had these wonderful, beautiful breakthroughs and new ideas, we’ll talk about that. I can’t wait to talk about what you’re working on next, but what advice do you have for people that are getting to that ceiling and need to break through it to get to the next wall? What type of advice do you have, regardless of whether it’s business or personal, emotional, relationships? What advice do you have for people to keep going?
I don’t know if I can give you great advice on this. We all have hiccups in life. It’s not all lollipops, roses, rainbows, and everything. Things happen. What would you do with those things? How do you handle it? Going back to my youth, turn those negatives to a positive. Why did that happen? How come this sickness was happening? Let’s try and figure out how to correct that, whatever it might be. That’s not personal. I put the same thing in business, “My brand is shrinking a little bit. How can I advance my brand? How can I get it out there in the public?” The biggest thing is if you can surround yourself with people smarter than you, which has been my practice my whole life. You learn that in college. In business school, surround yourself with people that are smarter than you. Ask for advice. I don’t like to say advice, but I give suggestions like, “Try this. You might try that.” I tell them, “Sort it out. See what will work, what won’t work. I’m not going to say you should do this. Think about it. Maybe it’ll work.”
Thinking about what’s going on with you, you have a lot of projects going on. You’re a busy guy. I know you have grandkids too. Hopefully, you’re spending time with them. What’s going on in the future that you’re working on? I know you’re working a lot with veterans. I’ve tied that together even looking at your bio and not knowing that you were in the military, so I understand that. I mentioned to you some time ago that I’m very involved in a veteran’s charitable organization as well. Being born and raised in Colorado Springs, Colorado, I have all kinds of military around me.
Air Force Academy, right?
NORAD, Fort Carson, everything. My husband’s father was awarded three bronze stars. We’re very strong in the military. I know that’s another avenue that you’ve taken, but what does it look like for you now? Where are you spending your time and what are you working on, so we can get that message out to anybody who’s reading this?
We’re still promoting the movie. We’re so fortunate. The Wish Man movie is amazing to us. The cast, crew, production, everybody else was qualified for Academy Award nomination in 2019 for Best Picture. For a low budget independent picture to be qualified with the big boys was amazing. We’re still promoting. We are on Netflix. It was supposed to be six months. We’re now extended for three more years because of the popularity of the movie. We’re still promoting on that. I got contacted to develop a TV series. I can’t talk about that. We’re developing a possibility that I will host. That’s so much fun. It takes up all my time. Along with these nonprofits that I’m involved with. You’ve mentioned veterans. One I’m closely associated with is called US Vets. It’s not part of the Veterans Administration. There are chapters all over the United States. One of the top-rated nonprofits, $0.87 of every dollar goes into the mission, which is unheard of in the non-profit world.When people say you can't do something and won't work, figure out that negative and turn it to positive. Click To Tweet
The mission of US Vets, we have a big VA hospital here, but we have homeless veterans. We find these homeless veterans and we get them into temporary housing. We get them into counseling, job training, job placement, and permanent housing. A big successful rate here. We donated a former medical center, 80 offices that had been transformed into studio apartments for these veterans. I’m trying to promote that as much as I can. What I do too is I encourage the people to clean out your closets. I travel as I said. I’m always in hotels. I don’t steal. I always take all the extra shampoos and soaps. I put them in a bag and every other month I take them over there because that helps with everything else. They don’t have to buy these supplies for these guys. I can give it to them. I’m involved with these other nonprofits.
I did an interview before yours. I know several cast members from the Phantom of the Opera, the Broadway Show. They’ve become good friends. I’m on their board called Broadway Hearts. They put together for these actors and actresses to go to the children’s hospitals, the big Ronald McDonald house in New York City, to sing, dance, do the Disney type songs for them. We’re already getting requests on how to go into other theatrical towns, Chicago, San Francisco, LA, etc. When I was doing a thing, they put together a virtual song for me. It was so flattering. It puts on a happy face where you’ve got 30 of the cast members all singing at the same time.
That sounds neat to do. It reminds me of Patch Adams because he always wanted to have the kids smile.
I was fortunate. I shared the stage with Patch Adams several years ago. I got the medium and it’s funny. I went to shake his hands. They said, “No, you can’t shake hands unless you pick your nose first.” I did, pretending, not the actual. The Robin Williams character that portrayed Patch Adams was almost dead on.
When you said that, I’m thinking, “He probably was that funny.” That’s hilarious. I’m happy that you did that. I want to ask another question. Aside from all of the charitable work that you do, talking about Frank personally, what gives you joy in your life and in your family?
The joy is reaching out to all these people. You mentioned my grandchildren. My grandchildren, a great-grandson, and my daughters all live in Columbus, Ohio. I only get to see them a few times a year. My joys are we’ve got a fairly large place here and being out in the open, fishing. Even back in my days, I worked under a governor on homicide and needed to have my head clear. I said, “Have you ever been fishing on the Yellowstone? Have you ever been up in the Tetons? Have you ever been up at Rushmore?” All these solitude type places, that’s my joy. A fishing pole in my hand, that’s all I need and my wife by side.
If she wants to fish.
She does. For years and years, we rode motorcycles all over the country. That’s all you need.
I wish you could have met my father. He passed away years ago and he’s buried above Timberline on the Continental Divide in Colorado. We took his ashes up there and spread it because that’s where he loved to be. He loved to hunt and I learned a lot. The other side of me is very quiet as my father. He’s a lot like Clint Eastwood. He’s very quiet and doesn’t say much. We have to do that. That’s where the sanity is in these days. Frank, I want to say thank you again. You’re such an inspiration and I can only hope that I can give as much as you’ve given. I doubt that I’ll ever make it there.
One of the biggest things that I love about you and I know you say that you don’t have to have money to give. The key thing is that a lot of people tend to give money. What I’ve learned is how to dig in. I’ve witnessed it by seeing you. You may not know that from afar when we’re in the movie theater or wherever we’ve been on stage together. Seeing the amount of physical work that you put in inspired me to make sure that I don’t just give money because it’s not enough.
It’s just a movie. Everyone can be a hero. Help somebody out. You see it, especially right now, what’s going on with this virus thing, people helping people and even big corporations helping out. It’s unbelievable how they’re giving back to the community.
Changing what they make and making something different that will help everybody. It’s incredible. At our church, we created something called The Guardian Angels. I’m Catholic. There’s a handful of us, about 30 of us and we’re reaching out to anyone who’s over 75. We’re reaching out and having conversations with them. We’re taking medication to them, sitting on their porch, and talking to them through a window. We’re doing whatever we can to help them. I have to tell you, it’s very fulfilling because I could sit in my house all day long like everybody else, but it feels good to be able to give back to people, especially people that are feeling very lonely and isolated. It’s one thing to be social distancing with your family, but it’s another thing to be alone.
Especially with the elderly generation shut in right now, how much of that means to them what you and your group are doing.
I was on a phone call for about 50 minutes with someone talking about everything. I was fine with it because I want to share it. I’m one of 37 cousins. I have twelve aunts and uncles. That’s one side, plus their spouses. I’ve got probably 18 or 19 that are still living and I’ve been calling them too. It made me say, “If I’m going to call people from my church, why wouldn’t I call my own family?” I got on the phone and we’ve had a blast. What a blessing. I hate to say it, but what a blessing the pandemic has been because it’s brought us all back to a reset that has been in alignment with your entire life. I want to say thank you so much again, Frank, for taking time with us. I appreciate it. Readers, if you want to hire Frank as a speaker, good luck with this time. Good luck in getting him, but there’s an opportunity for you to do that as well. I encourage everyone, please watch, Wish Man. It is an incredible cinematic film. I can’t tell you how much it touched us. Thank you so much.
It was a pleasure talking to you.
- Make-A-Wish Foundation
- US Vets
- Broadway Hearts
About Frank Shankwitz
Frank Shankwitz is best known as the Creator, Co-Founder, and first President/CEO of the Make-A-Wish Foundation, an extraordinary charity that grants the wishes to children with life-threatening illnesses. From humble beginnings, the Make-A-Wish Foundation is now a global organization that grants a child’s wish somewhere in the world on an average of 28 minutes. Frank is a U.S. Air Force veteran and has a long and distinguished career in law enforcement. He began as an Arizona Highway Patrol Motorcycle Officer, and retired as a Homicide Detective with the Arizona Department of Public Safety, with 42 years of service.
Frank has been featured in numerous publications and television programs, including Inside Edition, The Doctors, Hallmark Home and Family, Fox News, and CBS. Frank has received several awards, including the White House Call To Service Award from both President George W. Bush and President Donald J. Trump, and the “Making A Difference In The World” award from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. In 2015 Frank joined six U.S. Presidents as well as Nobel Prize winners and industry leaders as a recipient of the Ellis Island Medal of Honor. In December 2015, following his commencement address, Frank was presented with an Honorary Doctorate Degree, Doctor of Public Service, from The Ohio State University. In December 2015, Frank was identified as one of the “10 Most Amazing Arizonans”, in a front-page article in the Arizona Republic newspaper.
In January 2016, Frank was identified in a Forbes Magazine article as a “Forbes Top Ten Keynote Speaker”. In April 2017, Frank was presented the Unite4:Humanity Celebrity ICON Social Impact Award, joining past recipients Matthew McConaughey and Morgan Freeman. In February 2018, Frank shared the stage with Matthew McConaughey at Universal Studios at the LA City Gala and was presented with the first City Gala Hero Award. Frank’s new book, “Wish Man”, was re-released in September 2018 and is available at Amazon.com. In May 2019, following his commencement address, Frank was presented with an Honorary Doctorate Degree, Doctor of Law, from St. Norbert College.
In June 2019, Frank joined 89 celebrities, when he received his “STAR” on the Las Vegas Walk of Fame. In October 2019, Frank received a Lifetime Service Award from Women of Global Change. In November 2019, Frank received his “STAR” on the Coronado Island Walk of Stars. In November 2019, Frank received the 2019 Arizona Ambassador of the Year Award from the Consular Corps of Arizona.
In January 2020, Frank was appointed as an Honorary Commander of the U.S. Air Force 161st Air Refueling Wing, based in Phoenix, AZ, a two-year position. Frank’s life story, “Wish Man”, a feature motion picture, was released in June 2019 and has won several awards, including being qualified for an Academy Award for Best Picture Oscar. Frank is a board member on several non-profits, including U.S. Vets, The Wounded Blue, Broadway Hearts, Women of Global Change, and Level Up Home Seattle.