- Associated Press - Tuesday, June 10, 2014

DETROIT (AP) - Emma Webb sorts through a rack loaded with dresses in a Bloomfield Hills office space.

She fingers the details on purple satin and red chiffon, eyeing gowns that would make many a teenage girl weak at the knees - perhaps the boys as well.

The 16-year-old brain cancer survivor from Harrison Township closes a door to try on a glittery mauve tiered dress with ruffles and a satin ribbon. She smiles broadly as she steps out.

“Did you see her face?” says Michelle Soto, founder and president of Wish Upon a Teen, a nonprofit that provides support for adolescents with chronic or life-threatening illnesses as well as teens with autism and developmental disabilities. “That’s why I do this.

“Right now, there’s nothing for her to worry about. There are no IVs, no chemo, nothing matters but finding the dress.”

Wish Upon a Teen is now 3 years old, and it’s about to host its second prom for sick kids, according to the Detroit Free Press ( http://on.freep.com/ThN4GC ). This year’s event is planned for June 14 at the Hotel St. Regis in Detroit. Dresses are provided free to anyone who needs one, and suits are donated to boys through a partnership with Men’s Warehouse and other supporters.

“It’s going to be super fancy!” Jamie Greene Kaniarz, the organization’s executive director, tells Emma, who has deep brown eyes and short, pixie-style hair, highlighted a golden blond.

She is among the 50 or so teens planning to attend the event, and who also take part in Wish Upon a Teen’s other programs.

Soto, a native Californian, had a career as a child-life specialist in Los Angeles before she and her family moved to Bloomfield Township a little more than six years ago.

“My main job was to normalize a child’s life during hospitalization - from diagnosis to cure, or possibly, death - and working with families to keep things as normal as possible during a really chaotic time,” says Soto, 44.

She noticed that there were lots of programs for small children and plenty of enrichment-type activities for adults. But there was a pretty gaping hole when it came to teens.

In the last three years, “we’ve grown immensely because nobody focuses on teenagers,” Soto says. “We try to give them the same opportunities that every adolescent should have and deserves to have, no matter what you’re going through in your life.

“Kids that are battling life-threatening illnesses can’t necessarily go to the mall and hang out with their girlfriends.”

Wish Upon a Teen offers spa day events, pajama party movie nights, cooking classes and other programs for teens who want that experience.

“If you and I went to the mall when we were that age, we’d be talking about boys and parents and what did you get on that last test,” Soto says. “But these kids … talk about their ports, they talk about, you know, ‘Can you believe nurse so-and-so shoved that bedpan under you? That’s so rude.’ And they talk about their doctors, and their life experiences. That is so vital for them to continue to grow and get through whatever they’re going through.”

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