|JULY 17, 2010 --
Fifty people gathered at Buttonwood Farm Thursday amid its 450,000 blooming sunflowers for a volunteer appreciation day.
The event came two days before the opening of Sunflowers for Wishes, one of the largest fundraisers for the Connecticut Make-a-Wish Foundation.
Sunflowers for Wishes, which begins Saturday and runs through July 24, features $5 sunflower bouquets, with all proceeds going to the Make-A-Wish Foundation.
Appreciation day thanks the dozens of people who cut, bundle and sell the many flowers during the event.
"This is such a wonderful experience," volunteer Liz Sibicky said. "And people have told me that the wishes we raised have made all the difference."
Commemorative T-shirts, note cards and a hayride around the 15.5 acres of sunflower fields will also be available, along with the farm's ever-present homemade ice cream.
"We grew a small field of sunflowers just for people eating ice cream to have something to look at," said Kim Button, who owns the farm. "Then people kept asking if they could pick a flower, and we thought maybe we could do something for charity with this."
Button chose Make-a-Wish Foundation, an organization that grants the wishes of sick children. Sunflower for Wishes was soon born and is entering its seventh year having raised more than $300,000 to date, according to Make-a-Wish representative Kim Smith.
The Button family maintains the entire sunflower farm and doesn't sell a single flower for a profit.
"It is a lot of work," Button said. "But when someone comes up to you and tells you you made a difference, that means everything."
Several Make-a-Wish children have come back to the farm, thanking the Buttons and the volunteers for their efforts. This year it was Kevin Anthony, a 20-year-old who was given a vacation to Hawaii two years ago from money raised at the event.
Four years ago, Anthony was playing baseball when he suddenly had trouble breathing. He went to the doctor expecting it to be "no big deal" only to be diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, a potentially fatal form of cancer.
In 2008, between almost-daily chemotherapy treatments, Anthony contacted the Make-a-Wish Foundation. He was granted his wish, a trip to Hawaii with his family.
"To me, that trip was everything," Anthony said. "It was an escape for a week. (It) gave me something to look forward to and something to remember."
The event raised more than $70,000 last year, Smith said. It takes $8,500 to grant one wish, and the Connecticut Make-a-Wish Foundation granted 140 wishes last year, she said.
"This is one of the best fundraisers we have, because not only does it raise money, it raises awareness," Smith said. "It has truly become a destination."