Earlier this year, Julie and I learned that our son, Jacob, qualified to receive a wish from the Make-A-Wish Foundation. It was a bit overwhelming, especially for Jacob, who felt that whatever he wished for should benefit the entire family, not just him. After a great deal of thought, Jake came up with four wishes. At the top of his list was a family trip to Walt Disney World. In mid-June, Jacob was granted his wish. A wave of excitement washed over our family, as the four of us, including my 13-year-old daughter, learned that we’d be taking a family vacation to Orlando, Florida to visit not only the Magic Kingdom, but also Universal Studios, Florida and Sea World. This week long trip took place at the end of July, making for a nice conclusion to a rather emotional summer, and truthfully, a nice escape from what has been a very traumatic year.
The Make-A-Wish Foundation treated us like royalty, arranging for all of our travel accommodations, providing per diem for food and souvenirs and setting us up to stay at a beautiful resort in Kissimmee, Florida called Give Kids The World. This 70-acre village, with over 140 villas, a swimming pool, merry-go-round, miniature gulf, game room, movie theater, and life sized Candyland playground, was founded in 1986 by hotelier, Henri Landwirth. A Jewish survivor of the Holocaust, Landwirth established Give Kids The World after a wish child missed her opportunity to go to Disney World when accommodations couldn’t be arranged soon enough. The little girl died before she received her wish. Landwirth made it his mission that no child should ever miss their wish and Give Kids The World, a resort village for Wish families from all over the world, was born.
Give Kids The World maintains operation with a small staff and through the support and contributions of volunteers, most from the community. Still there are many volunteers (appropriately named ”angels”) who are college or high school students willing to pay their way to Florida to come help sick or disabled children and their families have a safe, stress free vacation. As a parent who spent a week around these kind people, I can tell you how humbling it was to have complete strangers show us love and kindness and make us like we were the most important people in the world.
When we arrived on a Saturday afternoon, our angel gave us a tour of the village. Over a PA, Bob Marley’s ”One Love” was piped in, the iconic singer’s words taking on a more personal meaning to my family and me. The four of us were amazed by what we saw: the exteriors of all of the buildings were designed to look like something out of a storybook. The village had an immediate, inviting quality that was unlike any place I’d ever been other than a friend’s or relative’s house. When shown our villa, our angel volunteer told us that the villa would be our home for the week. I recall that feeling that you get when checking into a hotel: everything is foreign, none of it feels personal. By Tuesday, the villa had our family’s aura and whenever we walked thought the front door, it did feel like our home.
Besides our spacious two bedroom villa, there was the Gingerbread House, the dining hall where all families could go for breakfast and dinner (lunch was usually spent at one of the parks). All of the furniture was lower, better suited for children and the ceiling was lined with stuffed animals donated by Give Kids The World families. The kids enjoyed naming all of the cartoon and comic book characters they knew amongst the village’s large collection of plush toys. Jake soon decided that we had to send Finn and Jake dolls from the TV show, Adventure Time, to add to the group. They go in the mail next week.
Our favorite stop each day was the Ice Cream Palace, where the frozen treat is served all day long, even for breakfast. The Ice Cream Palace’s reputation was pretty widespread. When Jake had the opportunity to have his picture with Wolverine (from the X-men) at Universal, this gruff sounding performer dressed as everyone’s favorite mutant asked if we were staying at the village and whether we were getting lost of ice cream. That made Jacob’s eyes light up
Throughout the week, our good times at Disney World, Universal and Sea World were complimented by our time at the village. We swam and participated in many of the wonderful activities that the staff plans for all of the families. However, the one memory that will stick with me is the laughter. I can’t tell you the last time I’ve heard all four of us just giggle and howl over the silliest of things, such as getting water logged on a ride, or being startled by one of the 3D attractions. Especially Julie, who has had such a wretched, emotional year, to hear the joy in her voice was a blessing. And to watch my children, both of whom are growing up so fast, to be kids for a week was so beautiful that I’m close to tears just writing this. As our vacation came to an end, Julie and I came away feeling that Give Kids The World was the best part of the trip (not to knock Disney World, Universal or Sea World- they were all awesome, too). Both of our children seemed to agree. They made repeated claims that someday they would want to go back and volunteer.
When we left Florida to return to our everyday lives, I was at peace with so many of the issues that had plagued me beforehand. These people, the volunteers and the staff at Give Kids The World reminded me, and my family, that the phrase ”global community” should not just be political jargon. They reminded us that all of us are here together and that we really should watch out for one another in order to make this world a better place.
Our first night at the village, we walked back to our villa on a path lit mostly by moonlight. To our right, tiny frogs chirped while perched on the banks of a man made pond. The central Florida air was thick with humidity and our clothes stuck to our bodies with sweat. Overhead, storm clouds hung in the sky, merely threatening to rain. Though, if you listened, the rumble of thunder could be heard in the distance. Jake and I lagged behind his mother and sister, shuffling our feet, his hand gripping mine.
”This place is like some kind of paradise,” Jacob said, as we continued our walk back to our home for the week.
To learn more about Give Kids The World, please visit www.gktw.org
To learn more about the Make-A-Wish Foundation, please visit www.wish.org