Wish Stories

Sharon Retraces Her Family's Journey to America

They say every family has a story to tell—do you know yours?

For some, looking into the past is one of the best ways to enrich the present. It can give us a greater sense of self to learn about the experiences of the people who came before us.

That has been the truth for Sharon, age 75, who has loved learning about her family history since she was a young girl.

Maybe that’s because Sharon’s grandparents played such a significant role in her life. Every Sunday, she would spend time with her maternal grandparents, building many memories that she treasures to this day. Their days often ended together on the couch, flipping through photo albums full of black and white images of Italy in the 1880s. Sharon loved listening to their stories about life and how her grandparents traveled to Ellis Island to begin a new life in America.

One of her favorite stories was about her grandmother Janette, who was only five years old when her family immigrated to the United States. Sharon could picture it in her mind’s eye: After what seemed like a never-ending journey, Janette’s enthusiasm erupted when she saw a glint of Lady Liberty in the distance. Jumping up and down, she began waving a miniature American flag, laughing with joy.

Sharon often pictured her great-grandfather and grandparents walking through Ellis Island and wondered what it would have felt like to be there. She thought it was so brave of her ancestors to take a leap of faith and begin anew in a foreign land, learning a new language and way of life.

Heinz and his son hold hands and smile broadly after their airplane ride
Heinz sitting inside Cessna airplane before takeoff
Heinz stands in front of Cessna airplane before his ride

That empathy stayed with Sharon as she grew older, guiding her to choose a career dedicated to helping others. Sharon worked as a clinical social worker for much of her life, helping families and single mothers in challenging situations. After retiring in 2014, Sharon took some time to adjust to a new routine and her newfound free time.

Sharon felt like something was missing in her retirement until she discovered AARP Foundation Experience Corps in 2018. Experience Corps is a community-based volunteer program that engages highly trained volunteers over age 50 as tutors and mentors to help students become better readers by the end of third grade. Sharon helps children at a local school improve their literacy skills—the same sort of help she imagines her grandmother must have received as she learned English and adjusted to her new life in America.

When Wish of a Lifetime heard Sharon’s story, we were thrilled to help her retrace her family’s steps. In the fall of 2022, we sent Sharon on a family heritage trip to New York City, where it all began for her family generations ago. And to make the experience even more special, she was accompanied by her son Michael and his wife, Allison.

Together, they traveled to Ellis Island, walking the same steps as her great grandfather many years before.

Heinz stands with his pilot in front of the airplane
Heinz and Gunar stand in front of Cessna airplane and smile

“How awesome it was,” she said. “To realize what my great grandfather went through to get here to this country. What a wonderful example they were for our family.”

During their visit, Sharon received a beautiful portfolio containing her family’s immigration and naturalization documents. It was the first time she had seen any of these artifacts, offering an entirely new perspective on their journey. She knew that someday she would pass the portfolio to Michael, who could share it with his family and generations to come.

It was an emotional experience to be sure, leaving them all with much to think about.

Reflecting on her wish, Sharon shared that it made her feel as if she was a part of something bigger.

“It changed my life to understand how I got here today,” she said. “It struck more of a chord than I thought it would for me… it’s one of those things that has had an impact on me and will always be there.”

Sharing the experience with her family made it even more profound.

“This is our legacy,” she said. “It was very moving, and I can’t thank Wish of a Lifetime enough for choosing me.”

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Colleen and her daughter laugh as they walk together along the ocean

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