Cold Spring growers plant sunflowers and grow wishes for sick children

The O’Keefe family (from left): Shawn, Katelyn, Brendan, Shane and Simonne. (Photo Courtesy of Madyson Gasper)

By Sue Gully, Correspondent

Forty-thousand sunflower plants dot Shawn and Simonne O’Keefe’s 2.5-acre field on the edge of their property near Cold Spring.

A few have opened, but soon all of the sunflowers will be in full bloom, symbolizing not only beauty, but hope for children with life-threatening illnesses.

“Sunflowers are yellow, bright and face the sun,” said Katelyn O’Keefe, 21, and daughter of Shawn and Simonne O’Keefe. “They’re really happy, and we are trying to make children happy.”

The O’Keefe family, which also includes sons Shane, 23, and Brendan, 15, decided to plant the sunflowers for a project they call “Wish Upon A Sunflower” for the Make-A-Wish program. They will sell the sunflowers to raise money for Make-A-Wish Minnesota.

“We’re not just growing sunflowers; we’re growing wishes,” Simonne said.

Wish Upon A Sunflower begins with a kick-off event August 4. The kick-off event will feature wine and beer tasting, stories by Make-A-Wish kids, a silent auction, hors d’oeuvres, sunflower bouquets and sunflower items for sale.

Sunflower sales will be held noon – 7 p.m. Saturday – Tuesday, Aug. 5-8 at the farm.

A Pics and Pints event will be held from 6 p.m. – 11 p.m., Aug. 5 with opportunities to photograph the sunflowers and socialize with fellow photographers. A photo contest is also part the events.

The family is also planning a sunflower canvas painting party Aug. 7.

Sunflowers are beginning to bloom at the Shawn and Simonne O’Keefe farm near Cold Spring. The sunflowers will be sold to raise money for Make-A-Wish. (Photo by Sue Gully)

“We want to raise money and awareness for Make-A-Wish,” Simonne said. “Their vision is to grant the wish of every eligible child.”

Make-A-Wish grants wishes for children with life-threatening diseases. Wishes include trips, visits from celebrities, gifts and helping others in need.

Now in its fourth year, Wish Upon A Sunflower began in 2014. Simonne, who has an affinity for sunflowers, decided she would like to plant a sunflower field. As the plants grew, Simonne and Katelyn discussed what they should do with the sunflowers.

“We thought it would be amazing to sell them to benefit a worthwhile cause,” Katelyn said.

Make-A-Wish was chosen because it helps children with a variety of life-threatening diseases, including lupus, an autoimmune disease that Katelyn was diagnosed with when she was 17. The disease affects her joints, resulting in arthritis and fatigue. Katelyn is now studying biology at the University of California – Los Angeles and plans to continue studies at a medical school.

When the family contacted the organization, Make-A-Wish representatives asked if Katelyn wanted a wish granted.

“I qualified for a wish, but I thought, ‘Why take a wish from a child that is sicker or younger than me?’’’ Katelyn said.

The first year, the sunflower sales yielded $2,000 and the project grew from there. The second year brought $5,000 and last year, $8,000 was raised.

As sales grew, the family chose to add events to the sunflower sale. The volunteer list also grew, boasting more than 50 this year.

“We wouldn’t be able to do it on our own,” Katelyn said. “We got family and friends and neighbors involved.”

Tom Konz chops the stalks, fertilizes, chisel plows and digs the ground. Shawn O’Keefe tills and plants with equipment borrowed from Ed Zapp, who also donates the seeds.

A bright yellow sunflower faces the sun at the Shawn and Simonne O’Keefe farm. It is ready to be picked to raise money for children with illnesses. (Photo by Sue Gully)

Shane, Katelyn and Brendan help with a variety of behind the scenes activities including watering the plants, setting up the shop, making copies, distributing flyers, running errands, cleaning, posting on social media, harvesting the sunflowers and making bouquets.

People from Grand Lake assist with various aspects, as well as volunteers through Make-A-Wish Minnesota. Some volunteers come from California, where the O’Keefes live much of the year. Minnesota, where Shawn grew up, is their summer home.

This year, they hope to raise more than $10,000 for Make-A-Wish.

In addition to raising funds for Make-A-Wish, Simonne is a wish granter and Katelyn is in training to be one. A wish granter is a volunteer who interviews a child seeking a wish and his or her family and then revisits them for the wish reveal and celebration.

“I see these families,” Simonne said. “They’re so happy. They have a wish and someone to listen. Wishes help kids be kids for a little bit and not think about medications and doctor appointments and gives them hope.”

A Make-A-Wish study highlights the health benefits of wishes. According to the Wish Impact Study Results, “A combined 89 percent of doctors, nurses and health professionals surveyed say they believe a wish experience can influence wish kids’ physical health.”

“It’s more than just being nice,” Simonne said. “It can help kids get better.”