Rachel Salerno wants to help people, no matter their age, vitality or nationality.
This passion began at age 4, after Salerno was diagnosed with leukemia. Many children remember needles and bald heads, but Salerno remembers very different things.“I remember she and her friends had a lot of slumber parties in the driveway,” said Jennifer Shuman, program services director at the Make-A-Wish Foundation of Nebraska. “I was actually one of the people who helped her wish come together. It was always so cute to hear that they were using the camper.”
“When she first wished for a camper, I thought, ohhkaay, because our four children were so little at the time.” Ann said. “But we call it the wish that keeps on giving, because we still love camping and we use it, and it has given Rachel and our family so much joy”
Make-A-Wish would say Rachel is the wish kid that keeps on giving. Once she was granted her wish, Rachel wanted to help the people who had helped her, and she began donating her time to Make-A-Wish and other organizations.
“She just had such a wining smile, and she was always willing to get up and speak,” Ann said. “Make-A-Wish always wanted her to come to their events.”
“Rachel is a wonderful, wonderful, person,” Shuman said. “At first she was rather shy and timid, but if someone wanted a Wish Child at an event, she and her mother would volunteer, and she would walk around with her photo albums and talk to people. We love her.”
Rachel still volunteers for Make-A-Wish. “I love doing the car show (the Omaha World-Herald Auto Show). Some people don’t even know what Make-A-Wish is, so I get to tell them at this show. I also like wrapping presents at Christmastime. We try to help with Make-A-Wish Events several times a year.”
Make-A-Wish partners with Oakview Mall in Omaha, Neb., during the Christmas season, where people can come and have their presents wrapped by volunteers.
“She has pulled so many of her friends into this (wrapping presents),” Ann said. “It has become a tradition. Her friends get upset if they can’t get together to wrap presents.”
While many people spend their time volunteering for one organization, Rachel does not stop there. She has volunteered for Children’s Hospital, where she was treated during her illness.
“They would bring in therapy dogs back then. Zoe was my favorite,” Rachel said. “But, if you were too sick to play with the dogs, they would have you in isolation rooms, but you still had toys to play with, which was a big deal. Now, I help with things like playing with the cancer children and sterilizing toys for them to play with.” She has also volunteered for the Leukemia/ Lymphoma society, including making pottery to be auctioned off at their Diamonds and Champions ball, which garnered several thousand dollars.
“The bids kept going up and up, I think the pottery sold at about $8,000,” Ann said. “These people both wanted it so badly that Rachel agreed to make another one.”
“The whole family is just dynamite,” said Pattie Gorham, executive director of Leukemia/Lymphoma Society. “Rachel was one of what we call our ‘honored heroes,’ or spokespersons for the society, and they were always very willing to help out with whatever was needed.”
Rachel has a non-traditional teenage life. While her siblings, twins Vincent and Sarah, 16, and Victor, 13, all attend Glenwood Community Schools, Rachel, is being home-schooled.
“With home-schooling, she gets a full sensory experience,” Ann said. “When we are learning about history, for example, she will read about a topic, we will watch a documentary about it, and try to visit a museum as well.”
“I try to devote a couple of hours on Wednesday mornings to volunteering,” Rachel said. “Then I have specific days when I don’t volunteer, and I devote those days to school.”
A school she formerly attended recently led to a volunteer project. When Rachel was in third grade, she attended Phoenix Academy, which helps students to strengthen reading and math skills, because the chemotherapy she was subjected to at a young age affected the way Rachel learns.
The organization recently held an open house, which Rachel and Ann attended out of curiosity. Executive Director Nancy Liebermann was then one of Rachel’s teachers, and she asked Rachel to come and help at the academy as a teacher’s aide. She gladly said yes.
“What’s great is that they (former students) know exactly what it’s like. They’ve been some of the best teachers,” Liebermann said. “One of the reasons why I am glad to have her back is that she’s always been a hard worker, even when things were tough.”
On a typical week, Rachel spends about four hours volunteering. If there is an event, she may spend many more hours on a volunteer project.
While Rachel volunteers for many organizations in Omaha, she is also committed to her local community. She is a member of Holy Rosary Catholic Church, as is the rest of her family, and Rachel is active with Catholic Youth Organization (CYO). She attends the biennial National Catholic Youth Conference (NCYC), and helped fundraising efforts for this last summer when RAGBRAI began in Glenwood.
“We handed out Des Moines Registers and handled that booth,” Rachel said. “We had a bunch of duties like handing out water.”
Salerno also assists fundraising for the NCYC trip and CYO by volunteering at church sponsored events.
Less than a month after volunteering for RAGBRAI, Salerno helped the Glenwood community with another large, though sobering, event – sandbagging and moving flood victims. It was during this time that tragedy struck the Salerno family.
Ironically, several weeks after helping flood victims move from their homes, the Salerno’s house caught fire from lightning during a storm and burned significantly.
Always one to see the bright side of life, Ann soon afterward saw an opportunity for Rachel and her siblings to help those less fortunate.
“Right at the time that we had lost a lot of our possessions, we learned of the opportunity to serve in the Dominican Republic,” Ann said. “As a family we felt the timing is so perfect, what an impactful opportunity to serve the poorest of the poor.”
The four Salerno children will serve with other youth in the parish of Banica, Dominican Republic, an agricultural community 180 miles west of the capital city of Santo Domingo. The opportunity was found through St. John Bosco Church in Lincoln.
Rachel’s commitment to the community, earned her the designation of Junior Citizen of the Year in February.
“That was a complete surprise,” Rachel said. “I’m honored, but I never expected anything like that. I just do it to be helpful.”
“We are so proud of Rachel. This gives us such joy as parents,” Ann concluded.
Along with those projects previously mentioned, Rachel also volunteers for Relay for Life, the proposed Loess Hills Archaeological Interpretive Center and the Glenwood Area Chamber of Commerce.
“I remember getting certain cravings caused by the medication,” said Salerno, now 17. “I would beg Mom to run to Taco Bell at midnight. I don’t have that many bad memories, but sometimes something will trigger a memory, such as certain smells.”
While battling this disease, a social worker advised the Salerno family that Rachel was being recommended as a wish recipient with the Make-A-Wish Foundation, which grants wishes to kids age 4 to 18 who are battling life-threatening illness.
“At first, she wanted a horse, but at that time, we lived in Omaha,” said Salerno’s mother, Ann. “Her next idea was that she wanted to camp on her land. We had owned land here in Mills County, but had not built the house yet.”
Make-A-Wish gave Rachel a camper, which made her very happy. The family still has it to this day.