'Wish' program provide trip to D.C. for 88-year-old

Fla. retiree gets to see what politicians really do all day

Sun SentinelDecember 29, 2012 

50P-LIFETIMEWISH MCT

Margaret Lapolla, 88, of Margate, Fla., visited her congressman, Rep. Ted Deutch, during her dream trip to Washington.

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  • for info

    For information on submitting an application to the Wish of a Lifetime Foundation, go to seniorwish.org or call 303-954-9144.

Endless committee meetings. Mind-numbing reports. Non-stop smiling and back patting, and trying to remember people's names.

It may sound like your idea of a tedious work day. But it was one woman's dream come true.

Margaret Lapolla, 88, of Margate, Fla., was asked if she had any long-buried desire she had yet to fulfill. Her prompt answer: She wanted to go to Washington.

And not the tourist's version of Washington, either, walking around the Mall or monument hopping.

"I wanted to see what those politicians do all day long," said Lapolla, a retiree who shuns soaps for CNN. "Not because I'm nosy. I just wondered. I didn't want to just shake hands with someone."

Lapolla spent one day this month shadowing U.S. Rep. Ted Deutch, D-Fla., courtesy of the Colorado non-profit Wish of a Lifetime Foundation. Started by former NFL player and Olympic skier Jeremy Bloom, the organization will have granted almost 300 expense-paid wishes this year to people 65 and older. Wishes typically include motorcycle or balloon rides, reunifications with long-lost friends and family, trips to ballgames or plays.

While the foundation often gets requests from seniors who want to meet famous elected officials and celebrities, CEO George Bogdewiecz said it was unusual for someone to ask for a full political immersion course

Lapolla's take on life inside the Beltway? "They are very busy, I will tell you that. They are busy going to meetings," said Lapolla, whose voice still buzzed with excitement days after her return.

Lapolla, one of 10 children whose Italian immigrant parents insisted voting was the most important thing after attending church, started her Washington adventure at 9:30 a.m. Nov. 15, arriving at Deutch's office neatly dressed in a pink suit.

The petite grandmother was hustled to a Foreign Relations Committee hearing, where she sat on the edge of her chair while the Benghazi attacks were discussed ("I recognized some of their faces from television!").

Next it was off to a confab between Deutch and the music publishing industry about royalty laws ("They gave me my own papers so I could follow along!"). Then she got to walk on to the House floor. ("I was in the same place where Michelle Obama sits! I've seen it on CNN!")

But Lapolla's favorite moment probably was her lunch with Deutch in the invitation-only congressional members' dining room. "It was like sitting at my own dining room table, I was so comfortable. I felt like I belonged there," she said.

Secretly, Lapolla admitted, she always had longed to be an elected official in Brooklyn, N.Y., where she was born and lived most of her life. But raising her family and working in the public schools got in the way. So instead, she organized neighborhood groups in her home borough that pushed for a senior center and community improvements. Later, after moving to South Florida, she was active in a local women's group.

"She's always been involved with grass-roots politics. So I wasn't surprised at all that this was her wish," said her daughter, Kathy DeStefano, who accompanied Lapolla.

DeStefano is a substitute teacher at Tradewinds Elementary in Coconut Creek, Fla., and Liberty Elementary in Margate and used the trip as an educational tool for her students.

The children learned that good politicians listen to the needs of people who elect them, so they each sent polite letters to Deutch with DeStefano, outlining how he could accomplish that goal. Their pet project ideas included a water-theme park for their neighborhood and a bowling alley.

The foundation, which pays for wishes through donations and in-kind contributions, doesn't reveal how much they spend per request. But if her Washington day made Lapolla happy, well, whatever it cost was worth it, they said.

The wish recipients, whose average age is 82, overwhelmingly report that having their request granted made them happier, gave them a better quality of life and even improved their health, Bogdewiecz said.

"Our mission is to recognize people who helped make our country what it is and thank them," he said.

Although a Democrat, Lapolla hadn't expressed a party preference when she submitted her request. The foundation picked Deutch because he is her representative.

The congressman said he was impressed with Lapolla's energy and life experience — and that she would use her one wish to get to Washington.

"Especially given the way people feel about Congress these days," he added.

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