Service trip a life-changing experience


Hunched over, Jacob threw his arms forward, propelling his wheel chair across the creaking wooden floor.

He laughed, throwing his head back, smiling and clapping. He moved fast, forgetting he was being held prisoner by an unforgiving chair. He was free.

His adopted brother, who was maybe 10 years old, approached Jacob holding out a pillow he had made from the ‘magic pillow tree’. He had spent the last few minutes laughing too–joking and playing along with activities he had long outgrown.

They looked nothing alike. Jacob had dark skin, a shrunken body, big brown eyes full with wonder—he was probably 5 years old. Jacob’s brother had translucent skin, blond hair and blue squinty eyes. They may not have been blood related, but they were brothers nonetheless.

“Here Jacob!” he said, holding out the small pillow.

Looking up at his big brother, who towered over him, Jacob cautiously took the pillow from him. He was unable to speak, but he showed his appreciation by hugging the pillow close to his chest.

Jacob’s brother lit up. He looked away, overcome with emotion in this seemingly simple moment.

While Jacob’s freedom was trying to act like a normal 5-year-old boy, his older brother’s freedom came from making his younger brother smile. They were both free—even if it was just for a few moments.

Jacob and his brother are among thousands of kids who spend their vacation in the Give Kids the World Village–a Village for sick and terminally children and their families in Florida. St. John’s students were volunteers at the Village in May.

“The most important thing about Give Kids the World is that no matter what the situation, the family is able to take a break,” Maggie Bach, the chaperone on the trip, said. “In addition to the wish child, GKTW gives a breather to the parents and siblings that suffer alongside that child.”

Twelve students from the St. John’s Queens and Staten Island campuses spent the week in the Village assisting the “wish families” and providing them with the vacation of a lifetime.

“GKTW is a place where miracles became a reality,” Kamran Daravi, a senior on the trip, said. “I am forever connected with families from around the world whose personal experience have impacted and motivated me to strive toward my future field of medicine.”

The student volunteers from St. John’s spent the week-long service trip playing with the children and the siblings of the wish families, serving breakfast, assisting with activities and providing a distraction from the pain and sickness the families were overcome with.  The Village lives by the motto, “Where happiness inspires hope.”

“To help the passionate young ones who are aware of their diseases truly defines hope,” Daravi said. “My relationships made during GKTW created a new meaning of love for another.”

For some children, the trip is a week of celebration, having overcome a disease or nearing the end of their treatment. For others, the trip may be the last few moments they spend on earth.

The trip is all-expenses-paid by GKTW. The families stay in Villas, eat breakfast on site and have access to playgrounds, an arcade and a large swimming pool. During the day, the families are given passes to the Orlando parks including: Disney World Parks, ESPN World and Universal Studios. At night, activities are hosted inside the Village by volunteers like students. The St. John’s volunteers helped with a
Christmas and Halloween themed party, they dressed up as pirates, ran a mechanical train and served ice cream.

“I love scooping ice cream for breakfast,” Bach said. “There’s something really special that happens when a kid asks for a banana split at 7:30 a.m. and I get to give it to them.”

One of the favorite activities that takes place in the Village is ice cream for breakfast. No matter the time of day, the wish families are invited to get ice cream from the Ice Cream Parlor on site. Banana splits, hot fudge and every topping imaginable are tasty options.

When the children first arrive to the Village, they are brought to the Castle of Miracles. Volunteers, smiles and a carousal with unlimited rides welcomes them.  The wish child writes on a small star that is put on the ceiling of the castle. The entire ceiling is covered with
thousands of wish stars.

The wish children and their siblings, like Jacob and his brother, are invited to make a pillow at the magic tree.  A computerized owl talks to the children from inside of the tree; they play along, and at the end of the show each child gets a pillow.

“I think everyone gets something different out of Give Kids the World,” Bach said. “It’s a great reminder that life is short and precious and reminds me to make every second count.”

St. John’s students all had a similar experience at GKTW, they said it was a profound reminder–life is fragile and children are resilient.

“Many students say the experience is life changing,” Bach said. “And that they will remember the Village and the families they connected with forever.”