by Gabriela Ruiz
The opportunity to be part of something that not only changes your life for the better, but also the lives of others, is often rare. I have found a new appreciation for the life I live and a purpose for living such a life, all due to a magical place called Give Kids The World (GKTW), right here in Kissimmee, Florida.
Give Kids The World Village is a nonprofit organization with a 70-acre “storybook” resort that offers an all expense free, weeklong stay, for children with life-threatening illnesses and their families. What can be said about this brilliant organization cannot fully describe the wonderful things they do and incredible lengths they go to make these children and their families the happiest they have been in a long time.
How is this possible, you might ask? Well, it all starts with a little girl named Amy who suffered from leukemia and her wish to visit the theme parks in Orlando. That wish was reiterated to a noble hotel owner who gladly obliged to have Amy stay at his hotel. Unfortunately, the arrangements took too long and time ran out for Amy, and her wish was never fulfilled. This incredible man, named Henri Landwirth, made a promise to never allow this to happen to another child in need again. With a highly respected position in the hospitality industry, Landwirth recruited his colleagues and set out on a mission to make it possible to bring “wish kids” to Orlando within 24 hours if necessary.
Because the number of families in need continues to grow, the idea of a place solely and specially made for these families came to be, and in 1989 the GKTW Village opened its gates. Today, the Village offers 144 castle-like villas, whimsical venues, attractions, entertainment, food establishments, and a pool—all designed for children with special needs. Having brought in over 140,000 families to the resort from all over the U.S. and the world, the GKTW mission to fulfill the wishes of these families is standing strong.
One of the more special aspects about GKTW is that they not only offer a wish child this joyous opportunity, but they include the child’s entire family in this experience; whether it is parents, siblings, cousins or grandparents. Because GKTW knows that it is not only that child who suffers but also anyone close to them, they want to make that family’s experience as memorable and happy as possible.
When a family member of a child with a life-threatening illness contacts a Wish Foundation, for example, the Make-A-Wish Foundation, and ask that child what their wish is (if it pertains to an activity or park in Orlando (tends to be Disney World)) then, that foundation contacts GKTW to make the family’s stay as comfortable for that family as they can.
GKTW goes beyond that. They pick up the family at the airport and bring them to GKTW Village to set them up with their own personal villa. GKTW handles everything from making sure the family has all the tickets to places they want to visit (cost free), to making sure the family has all the medical supplies they need. When the families head out to the parks in the morning, GKTW volunteers leave presents for the children outside of their villa doors every single day. Mayor Clayton and Ms Merry tuck the children in for bedtime at night, something the kids really love.
There are always activities and events at the Village that make these children feel special. For example, the Pirates and Princess Night where the kids can dress up as such and watch a Pirates show while they dance and play. The Village Idol is an opportunity for the kids to show off their talents in a competition where everyone wins. The pool is completely handicap accessible so GKTW also holds a Splash Bash event full of games and pool activities for all of the kids.
While interning there, I constantly heard parents expressing their gratitude to GKTW by explaining how this is the first time their child has been able to go on a merry-go-round, or how this is the most relaxed they have ever been on a vacation since they did not have to worry about anything. Everything they needed and wanted was accessible to them.
Now, all this is would not be possible if it weren’t for the Amazing Angels. That is what the GKTW volunteers are called, and rightly so. Over 3,000 volunteers make the magic at GKTW possible every day. They are the ones who work throughout the entire Village, make gifts and pillows for the children, drive the families and make sure that everything that occurs at the Village is heartfelt and impactful. They are the ones that put lasting smiles on these families’ faces. On one occasion, a child was scared of there being a monster in the closet. The Amazing Angels set out to create a fun “monster repellent” kit for the child. It includes monster repellent spray, a bedtime stuffed animal, a nightlight, and some other goodies. This is just one example of the whole-hearted and kind acts of the GKTW Amazing Angels to make each child and family feel special.
While interning there, I was in charge of the GKTW social media pages. I would go through hundreds of messages everyday from family members who were so grateful and wanted to share either a specific moment of their visit or their overall experience with us, often shouting out their favorite volunteers for making their stay so special. It really shows how much their trip has impacted their lives, and it left me with tears in my eyes. I read stories of parents who said that their visit at GKTW helped improve their child’s health or even their outlook on life.
There is a 15 year old girl, known as Princess Alyssa, who suffered from cancer when she first visited GKTW as a young child, and unexplainably her cancer was gone when she returned home from her trip. She visits GKTW every year and tells the story of how she believes that the happiness she experienced during her visit to GKTW played a major role in her being cured.
For these children and their families, who are constantly in and out of hospitals, or have to fear that tomorrow might be their last, GKTW is in itself a wish come true. To spend any time without an ounce of stress knowing your child can enjoy an activity that they couldn’t enjoy before, or seeing a smile/hearing a word from your child for the first time is what GKTW is all about. Making a child’s wish come true and creating the happiness that inspires hope.
You can become an Amazing Angel and be part of this one of a kind organization in many ways. There are all kinds of volunteering opportunities whether you want to work in the palace and give girls a princess makeover, arts & crafts, or even serving ice cream for breakfast (the kids LOVE finding out they can have ice cream in the morning).
Or you can participate in one of the many fundraisers that GKTW does throughout the year. For example, the Otown MacDown just took place a couple months ago; it was a mac & cheese competition and you could purchase a ticket that would fund GKTW and in turn eat all the mac & cheese you wanted from restaurants and chefs of Orlando. But, there are plenty of opportunities to be part of a 5k run or their yearly gala. Any involvement with GKTW will impact your life as much as it will impact a child in need.