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Making wishes come true

As IT director for the Make-A-Wish Foundation of America, Jim Toy lives a dreamy job

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Perhaps Jim Toy's destiny was to become a child's wish maker. In his 10 years as IT honcho for the nonprofit Make-A-Wish Foundation of America , Toy certainly has fulfilled that role. Laid-back and soft-spoken, the 36-year-old New Jersey native has helped the Phoenix-based foundation grant some 90,000 wishes to severely ill children in the U.S.

The Make-A-Wish Foundation has 45 chapters and averages 11,000-plus wishes a year (and has granted about 120,000 since its inception 25 years ago). Toy and his staff of five operate the 15-server network, in-office wireless LAN and half-dozen critical databases that support the chapters. More importantly, IT staffers use their creative energies for a wide variety of fundraising projects. They design countless custom Web applications for sponsors, as well as write the foundation's mission-critical applications, such as WishMaker Pro, a secure Web database application built on Microsoft SQL that tracks the details of even the most complex wish, and Wish Café, a wish-tracking database.

"What I love about my job is that no two days are the same - there are always new projects, new sponsors, new creative ideas for benefiting Make-A-Wish," Toy says.

He also enjoys the can-do attitude that permeates the organization, from its people to its sponsors. For instance, Toy is embarking on a project to build a custom credit-card ordering application to interface with Bank of America's security systems. Among other functions, the interface will enable Make-A-Wish chapters to give families prepaid, co-branded credit cards for wishes involving a shopping spree or other expenditures. Toy's interface work is necessary because Bank of America's security systems are not designed to allow the kind of ordering procedure that Make-A-Wish will need, in which one person orders the card, payment comes from somewhere else and it ships to yet another address. "Typically, sponsors will go a long way to do as much as they can do, but rarely is there a project where IT is not involved," he says.

Toy, a self-described "network guy," loves such challenges. He is an IT executive Everyman operating without the kind of budgetary support his corporate counterparts enjoy. Toy is responsible for hiring and supervising the IT staff, strategic IT planning and hands-on network management. He's also the guy sent pounding the streets for donations of the IT equipment he needs (or negotiating inexpensive rates for them) - an aspect of the job he has grown to enjoy. "The first time my boss asked me to see if I could get the equipment I needed donated, I didn't like calling and asking at all. But people hear the Make-A-Wish name and really come through, and now I love it. It doesn't matter if it's a $150 piece of software or a $50,000 worth of hardware, people are as generous as they can be."

Even with deeply discounted rates, big IT projects require Toy to secure grant money, which he did for the $100,000 project that refreshed PC technology office-wide, completed three months ago. Through this project, Toy and his staff upgraded more than 70 PCs from archaic 400-MHz machines to sleek Dell Optiplex GX 280s with flat-screen monitors and multimedia CDs.

Besides the state-of-the-art PC and server technology, custom Web and data applications, Toy manages a 24/7 network complete with two wireless 802.11b routers. He also supports videoconferencing. Video has become standard for meetings with remote office staff, which include a person posted in Los Angeles orchestrating wishes involving celebrities, and one teleworking from Hawaii.

And he'll still do anything else needed of him. He's even been known to perform telephone break/fix support for hand-wringing office managers in far-flung chapters (although one position on his staff is help desk). "This position is really hands-on. I enjoy doing a lot of the networking maintenance," he says. And because he's good with a screwdriver, he once was called in as a pinch-hit assembly man for a Barbie Jeep, "when the local chapter picked it up at the last minute and couldn't get it together," he recalls. He does his fundraising part, too, preferably on his Harley. He joins in the local club's annual fundraising event, Wednesday Ride for Wishes, and takes part in an annual 250-mile ride.

Toy feels an affinity for the organization that goes deeper than a job he enjoys. As a boy, he dreamed of being a police officer. He lived his dream by serving for nearly a decade as a part-time reserve officer in Tolleson, Ariz., while holding down his daytime IT job. Make-A-Wish, too, was founded on a child's dream to be a policeman. A quarter-century ago, 7-year-old Christopher Greicius, suffering from leukemia, had his day as an honorary Arizona highway patrolman, complete with a specially sewn, authentic uniform and tiny helmet. Greicius died a few days later, and the officers involved were so moved by the experience that they, along with the Greicius family, founded Make-A-Wish. Pictures of Greicius grace the office halls and the tiny uniform hangs encased in the conference room.

"The mission of the organization is a big pull for me," Toy says. "It gives me a real sense of satisfaction. I enjoy that and also the variety of 'what's next?' I thrive on that urgency and the creativity here. The ideas for wishes are phenomenal."

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