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A diagnosis of multiple sclerosis changed Amy Buckley’s outlook on life, and now she’s helping others fulfill their wishes through her nonprofit Dream Adventures.

Amy Buckley, BSB/M ’11, remembers the Sunday in 2005 when she noticed a blind spot in her right eye, a possible precursor to multiple sclerosis. When the symptom returned the following year, the diagnosis was confirmed.

At 34, Amy knew her life had changed forever.

“Other than ankle surgery, I never even had a cavity,” says Buckley. “I was shocked. How can I have a lifelong illness?”

The disease forced Buckley to learn something new—how to respond when real trouble arises—and she did so by deciding to help others. She started a nonprofit called Dream Adventures, Inc., which she likens to a Make-A-Wish Foundation for adults. She raises money to help those with incurable or terminal illnesses live a lifelong dream.

“No one knows if this is their last day or if they’ll be diagnosed with something terrible,” says the 41-year-old Nebraska native. “I wanted to inspire people to fulfill their bucket list because today is all we can be sure of.”

“The Navy meant everything to me. It’s the biggest and best team in the world. I loved protecting and honoring our great nation.”

A firm foundation

Buckley grew up on a ranch in northwest Nebraska, a rural environment where every person mattered. She attended a one-room school, with outhouses, and was the school’s only student her third-grade year. “It was like Little House on the Prairie,” says Buckley.

After graduating high school and earning an associate degree, she worked for Continental Express Airlines before joining the Navy in 1994. In 10 years of active and reserve service, interrupted by a stint in hotel sales, Buckley saw the world, traveling to Singapore, Australia and Tasmania, among other countries.

She remembers being aboard the carrier U.S.S. Enterprise during the Sept. 11 attacks. Returning to work in the aviation supply shop, she saw the chaos unfolding live on an overhead TV screen. Buckley felt the pull of the enormous carrier as it slowed from 30 knots to a dead stop, the commander coming over the radio to declare: “We’re awaiting orders from the President of the United States.” Then, moments later, the Enterprise turned and the commander announced they were headed into the Persian Gulf.

Then, in early October, Buckley and others gathered on what is called Vulture’s Row, a loft overhanging the flight deck, to watch bombs being loaded for the attack on Afghanistan.

“The Navy meant everything to me,” says Buckley, who was medically discharged in 2004, due to her worsening ankle. “It’s the biggest and best team in the world. I loved protecting and honoring our great nation.”

Searching for answers

Following her Navy career, Buckley didn’t settle immediately on nonprofit work. Following her diagnosis, she was lost in an emotional wilderness, sad and scared. Her attitude changed Christmas day 2007, when she saw the movie The Bucket List, in which two terminally ill men (played by Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman) finally do the things they never got around to doing.

Emerging into the light outside the theater, Buckley had a revelation: “I need to stop trying to shed my skin like a snake. Stop running from this disease and embrace it as a positive.”

As her MS has advanced, there have been difficult days. In 2009, she enrolled at the University of Phoenix to study for a bachelor’s in business management. At times her body would “crash,” resulting in symptoms such as expressive aphasia, an inability to verbalize thoughts. She had to type answers on her laptop and show the teacher. Or she might recline over two chairs, a position that allows her body to rejuvenate.

“I’d seriously tell classmates to make fun of me because laughter is relaxing, the quickest way to bring my body back,” says Buckley, now living in Bothell, Washington, near Seattle. “We’d sit there laughing together. The teachers were terrific. They always understood.”

She graduated in June of 2011, then re-enrolled for her master’s, which she expects to complete in December.

Inspired to help others

In spite of the physical and emotional obstacles, Buckley has held on to the inspiration she felt walking out of that theater that fateful December. It took shape with Dream Adventures, founded May 1 of this year.

Buckley completed her first Dream Adventure in June. The beneficiary was Marvin Muse, a veteran with terminal pancreatic cancer whose dream was to marry his girlfriend. But he was penniless. With donations from six contributors, including American Legion Post 161 in Seattle, Buckley raised $4,000 and Muse got his dream wedding. “I thought, ‘Wow!’” she recalls. “I made a difference in a veteran’s life under grim circumstances.”

That adventure inspired Buckley to revamp her mission. Her focus now will be on connecting dream adventurists with matching companies—say, a hot-air ballooning firm—with a special emphasis on helping veterans, firefighters and teachers who’ve done something heroic. When Buckley identifies a candidate, she’ll use her contacts from the Navy and the hospitality industry to raise money to help that person fulfill their bucket list.

The concept might change more down the road, which is understandable when a matter of the heart meets hard reality. But given Buckley’s sunny demeanor and remarkable determination, don’t bet against her finding success.

“I honestly think MS is the best thing that could’ve happened to me because it taught me to live in the moment,” she says. “If I can do that for others, I can say I’ve made a positive difference in the world.”