UCF Alumna Grants Final Wishes in Father’s Honor
By Ashley Cullins
UCF alumna Mindy Bess ’06 was 17 when her father was diagnosed with glioblastoma and told he had six months to live.
Her mother, a church secretary, knew that her salary alone couldn’t support Mindy and her two siblings. While her mother pursued a nursing degree, Mindy helped run the household and care for her father. She cooked, cleaned, watched her younger siblings, and drove her father to doctor’s appointments.
Six months passed, then a year. Mindy’s father proudly watched as she graduated from high school and enrolled as a pre-med major at UCF.
She continued to help at home, even as she adjusted to the rigor of college coursework. One afternoon, she walked into the living room and saw her father watching a Garth Brooks concert special on TV.
“He was completely lost in the moment, just engrossed in it,” Mindy says. “It was like his escape from reality. I thought, I’d love to get a meet and greet or concert tickets for my dad. My dad is a veteran. He’s raised three kids, served in the church and the community. He has a heart of servitude. I wanted to do something for him.”
Mindy tried her best to make it happen, but her father never met his country idol. “It struck me that if he was a child or teenager, it would be different,” she says. “There are programs that grant wishes, resources to tap into. But because he’s 40, he can’t.”
“After seeing the damage terminal illness causes at any age, not just physically but mentally too, that didn’t make sense to me. I thought, I’m going to be the one to change it.”
That’s when Mindy’s big idea was born. She would create a foundation granting final dreams for adults battling a terminal illness.
The college student wasn’t ready to launch her own organization yet. But over the years and despite many obstacles, the idea stuck.
One evening after a family dinner, Mindy’s father fell in the living room and hit his head. Dragging his leg was a side effect of the cancer, and tripping or falling had become a constant struggle.
When he began slurring his speech, Mindy’s mother called 911. Her father was admitted to the hospital with a brain hemorrhage. He died a week later, four years after being diagnosed with glioblastoma.
That same week, Mindy’s grandmother had passed away after being hit head-on by a drunk driver in North Carolina. “My granny was like a second mom to me,” Mindy says. “Until I was almost 16, she had lived two blocks away. If I wasn’t home, I was with my grandmother. It was a very special relationship.”
“The whole situation was incredibly traumatizing,” adds Mindy. “I tried to skip over the grief, just survive instead of really feeling it. Looking back, that wasn’t the best way to handle it.”
From Medicine to Hospitality Management
In need of a break, Mindy took the following summer off. “I ended up crashing my GPA, and I lost interest in medicine,” she says. “A lot of people who deal with illness in the family feel pulled toward medicine, but for me, it pushed me away. I just couldn’t deal with it anymore.”
Mindy threw herself into planning an engagement party for her best friend. She remembers excitedly sharing the details with her friend’s mother, who replied, “It sounds to me like you’re in the wrong major.”
The lighthearted suggestion took root, and Mindy changed her major to hospitality management. “My time at Rosen College was a really good time in my life,” she says. “We had some amazing professors, and I just loved the whole experience.”
In 2006, Mindy graduated with her bachelor’s degree, becoming the first in her family to do so. Her mother followed suit with a bachelor’s and master’s in nursing—also from UCF—shortly after.
Two days after graduation, Mindy packed up everything she owned and headed to Oregon, where she had a job lined up managing a band. “I loved that job,” Mindy says. “I couldn’t wait to get up in the morning and hated to go to bed at night.”
The band broke up when its lead singer decided to pursue a solo career. For Mindy, a string of jobs as a property manager, substitute teacher and medical receptionist followed. But nothing made her feel the same sense of excitement and inspiration.
Needing a change, Mindy moved to Nashville, the place she had always wanted to be. And she decided it was time to start her foundation, the idea she had always wanted to bring to life.
In August of 2017, The James Bess Foundation—named for Mindy’s father—granted its first wish. Mindy has helped grant 21 wishes nationwide since then. Her goal is to grant a wish a month and expand the organization internationally.
“Each wish is a little different, but they’re all life-changing. Not just for the client, but for their family and friends as well,” she says. “We come in and show love and compassion to people and show them that they matter.”
“They are worthy of being cared for, worthy of being loved. We want to lift their spirits and give them a reason to keep going. For the family and friends, we create a special moment or memory to cherish with their loved one.”
The foundation has organized vacations, meetings with celebrities, and surprise military reunions. Some wishes are as simple as watching all the grandchildren play on the beach together.
Mindy’s favorite wish, if she had to choose, was for a man named Randy who was battling cancer. Randy had never left his region of Michigan, and his wish was to see the ocean in person one time.
“When I was talking to him, there wasn’t even a point person to coordinate the details,” says Mindy. “It was so hard to get him to even say three words because of just where he was in life. He was so depressed, discouraged and despondent.”
Mindy arranged for Randy and his brother to stay in a beachfront condo on Panama City Beach for five days, enjoying local attractions like a dolphin tour.
“When he came back, I called and he talked for 30 minutes straight,” says Mindy. “It wasn’t just the ocean. The ocean was awesome for him, but it was the little things: walking on the pier with his brother and seeing a lizard crawling on the beach. Seeing palm trees—he had never seen palm trees before. He said, ‘I can’t tell you how much I appreciate what you did for me. Because of what you did, I now have a reason to fight and live again.’”
“That’s why I do this. That’s what drives me, seeing their wishes and dreams become reality. Being able to give people hope and joy in a desperate situation. It’s something that I couldn’t do for my dad, but I’m doing it for others in his honor.”