The Immigrant Experience

… Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

Inscribed on a plaque at the feet of the Statue of Liberty, these words penned by poet Emma Lazarus in 1883 have now become as much a symbol of hope, freedom, and America’s immigrant heritage as the monument itself. Lazarus’ masterful sonnet “The New Colossus” has become deeply ingrained in our nation’s collective conscious, a universal credo of “world-wide welcome” and a gentle assertion of what could—or should—be.

For over a century, our Lady Liberty, or “Mother of Exiles” as Lazarus astutely named her, has kept watch over New York Harbor, lighting the way for voyage-weary immigrants and serving as a beacon of hope to downtrodden newcomers seeking refuge, opportunity, and the freedom of new frontiers. One such story is that of 94-year-old first-generation immigrant Elvira Gomes.

In the early 1900s, Elvira’s father and mother each made the long, grueling journey to the United States from the Azores Islands, an archipelago off the coast of Portugal. Elvira’s father was only 15 years old when he immigrated and her mother just 8. What a vast amalgam of emotions they must have felt as they arrived by tempestuous seas and stepped onto American soil for the first time—carrying with them all of their worldly possessions, speaking only their native tongue, and determinedly holding a dream of a better life deep in their hearts.

Elvira’s parents eventually settled in rural California, where they operated a dairy farm, raised their beloved children, labored tirelessly by day, and learned English at night school. Despite the back-breaking work, lack of electricity, and other hardships inherent in farm living, Elvira cherished the quintessential country life—especially the deep connection she shared with her family and their pride in their Portugese heritage. “We all sang together, worked together, and danced together. That’s what makes a happy family,” Elvira remembers, and she would, in turn, grow up to marry a hard-working dairy farmer and raise her four children in much the same way.  

For as long as she can remember, Elvira has wished to see the storied Statue of Liberty and explore the rich history of the immigrant experience at Ellis Island. Not only has she dreamed of making this once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage to honor her ancestry and her parents’ legacy, but she also desperately wanted to take a much-needed and well-deserved trip with her first-born child and only daughter Rachel—something they have never been able to do together. 

Both Elvira and Rachel, 72, still live in California, and while they value the closeness of family, there are many personal challenges that keep them from seeing each other as often as they’d like. Rachel spends most of her time caring for her loved ones who suffer from long-term medical ailments, and her life is, thus, selflessly consumed by helping others. Elvira, 94, spends her days giving back by volunteering for numerous community organizations, and she is especially passionate about helping disabled children. She loves singing, dancing, playing her ukulele, and teaching free music lessons because it brings her immense joy, “seeing the kids smile and sing along to the music.”

“A big city scares me a little bit,” Elvira initially confessed, but when she first caught sight of the Statue of Liberty, her worries melted away into feelings of awe, admiration, and contentment. 

“I had tears in my eyes. It was beautiful, all the people that came into that island…so much thinking and planning and working together…it was a miracle.”

For 133 years, the Mother of Exiles has held her torch high as a beacon of hope for millions of displaced souls “yearning to breathe free.” Elvira and Rachel were deeply and endlessly moved by all that Lady Liberty represents—not simply for their ancestral heritage, but for all of ours. As they learned about her complex history, explored the Ellis Island Museum, and heard impactful stories of the immigrants who passed through her gates, they were inspired by the sheer diversity of those who came before—and those who come today. 

“When I see all these people, all different nationalities, I feel like the Statue of Liberty says, ‘We are all one,’ and I was in awe…We’re more alike than I had thought.”  

What a simple yet poignant sentiment, and one that captures the true essence of the Statue of Liberty and “The New Colossus,” reverberating throughout history for all to hear. This is the spirit that makes us American, and this is the spirit we need in these tumultuous modern-day times. “That’s what the Statue of Liberty means, a love between all the nations,” Elvira proclaimed. 

What an honor and privilege it was for Wish of a Lifetime, with the help of our partners at Frontier Airlines, to grant Elvira’s wish to travel to NYC with her daughter Rachel. For many of our wish recipients, travel is a key component to fulfilling long-awaited dreams and one that often seems hopelessly—and fiscally—out of reach. Thanks to the generosity of supporters like Frontier Airlines, together we can continue to grant life-enriching wishes like Elviras’s and connect our oldest generations to their purpose and passions no matter the distance.

Like the luminous torch of Lady Liberty, at its essence, our mission represents the ideals of freedom, hope, and the exploration of new frontiers. Aging is a beautiful and universal experience, but one that our society tends to marginalize. Wish of a Lifetime wants to change that. We believe that with courage and determination, anything is possible at any age. Take Elvira’s words and write them on your heart: 

“Whatever you dream of, look for it…I didn’t just dream about it, I did it.”

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-Barbara Mikulski

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