Call her the Wishmaker.
As masses packed the Italian Market Festival on Sunday to cheer on competitors attempting to climb the infamous greased pole, Simonetta Lein was unveiling the permanent installation of her brainchild, the Wishwall, on the wall of a historic Di Bruno Brothers cheese shop.
“You’ll be amazed by how small things can make people so happy,” said Lein, a 33-year-old Italian immigrant. “A wish is an earthly way to have a piece of heaven. That’s what gives me strength to persevere.”
Lein made waves after installing the Wishwall in the Italian Market during Pope Francis’ visit for the World Meeting of Families in September 2015.There, she met the family of Theresa Pozzi, who was killed in a hit-and-run a year ago, who wished for help finding Theresa’s killer.
Within three months, Lein helped secure the funding to install a billboard offering a reward over the dark Northeast Philly road asking for witnesses to come forward. The case remains unsolved.
“These people basically became my family,” Lein said. “She was my age. I could have been her.”
Now Lein is looking for a new wish to grant and asking people facing struggles in their lives to come forward so she can try to help them.
Most of the wishes posted on the Wishwall during the Italian Market Festival came from children.
“I wish for everyone who had cancer to get better,” one wrote. Another wrote, “I wish education is available to everyone.”
Lein said she was particularly struck by a message from a child whose father is struggling with drug addiction. “I wish there’d be more help for drug addicts,” they wrote.
“It’s not impossible to do big things, but lets start somewhere,” was how Lein described her philosophy of working on granting individual wishes. “Do something concrete in your home, your community, it’s already a big step.”
Lein’s career includes work as a novelist and a fashion ambassador, but her passion is the Wishwall Foundation — which became a 501(c)(3) nonprofit last July. She invites people to share their wishes, either online or on physical “wishwalls,” and then works to grant them.
The concept of the Wishwall came to Lein after writing her first novel, “Everything is Possible.”
“I realized how wishes are actually possible,” she said. “For most people, it’s something they keep in the drawer. They’re afraid to take it out.”
Raised Catholic but now a Buddhist, Lein decided to settle in the East Falls neighborhood of Philly after marrying an American who was living in Italy.Raised by a licensed homeopathic doctor father and a psychotherapist mother, she sees her work as an evolution of their professions.
Lein is now working on a column for Marie Claire Italy about socially conscious fashion, and developing a TV show about her work granting people’s wishes.
“Life is like a party. If somebody is not happy, the party is a flop,” Lein said, quoting the singer Andrea Bocelli. “We can’t solve everything, but we can start from the people we know.”
“I really hope the the people keep trusting me to bring their stories to the world.”