Life changing break, Give Kids the World

St. John’s Students at Give Kids the World in Florida over their spring break.

St. John’s Students at Give Kids the World in Florida over their spring break.

Among the multitude of programs that St. John’s offers, perhaps the most enriching is the alternative Spring Break option. As my peers headed to destinations such as Cancun and Punta Cana for the week, I headed somewhere altogether different. A place much more special, much more influential.

That place is the Give Kids the World Village located in Kissimmee, Fla.

Founded in 1989 by Holocaust survivor Henri Landwirth, the Give Kids the World Village is a resort where families of children with terminal illnesses can enjoy an all-inclusive vacation free of charge. Give Kids the World is partnered with several organizations, including Make-a-Wish, to make this possible. Included in this vacation are tickets to the surrounding theme parks, such as SeaWorld and Disney World.

However, families can choose to stay in the Village and still have an incredible trip. The Village boasts such on-site amenities as a theater, a wheelchair accessible carousel, pool, spa, arcade, mini golf course and themed parties each night. The families are housed in villas on the premises, and each family receives a rental car for the duration of their stay. While staying in the villas, the families can have food delivered for breakfast, lunch or dinner. At night, they can have cookies and milk and a bedtime story delivered by Village mascot Mayor Clayton. Just this past year, the Village was paid a visit by Extreme Home Makeover. 88 villas were remodeled, as well as the volunteer welcome center.

The slogan for Give Kids the World is “Where happiness inspires hope.” After my trip, I believe this is more of a promise than it is a slogan. There is something truly remarkable about Give Kids the World. My initial perception was that this trip would be very sobering; I wrongfully assumed there would be something sad about it. I could not have been any more wrong. During the four days I spent volunteering in the Village, I saw nothing but radiant, happy faces of wish children, siblings and parents alike. Their happiness is contagious. From the moment you set foot onto the property, it becomes apparent that there is something special about the place. It is not merely its whimsical appearance.

The Village has the incredible ability to make each family feel so special, so loved, so welcomed. Children are doted upon by volunteers, and parents have the opportunity to bond with other parents. I had the pleasure of speaking with one father, whose daughter is currently in the midst of chemotherapy for leukemia. He marveled at her progress since arriving at the Village. She undergoes daily testing to monitor the state of her illness, and her results have improved dramatically since their arrival.

The story this father shared with me is not an isolated occurrence. Several parents shared similar stories with me. The constant smiles of the children are a living testimony to this idea. I found my trip to be a source of strength for me in my returning weeks. I am truly amazed by the resilience of these families. Despite incredible hardships, there is such a positive spirit surrounding the Village because of them.

I think of this trip every single day. It is so easy to become distracted by the melodramas of life: running late to work, bad hair days, monetary woes. When I feel myself beginning to indulge in
self-pity, I reflect on my time at the Village. I think of the sheer bliss on these children’s faces as they hugged Mayor Clayton. I think of the simple joy of coloring and having a very in-depth conversation about which Power Ranger is the best. I think of giggles as I helped make pillows at the Magic Tree. I think of the sounds of laughter as the carousel whirred. These are the things that have changed my perspective on life and on what really matters. “The most magical place on Earth” is a title that belongs to Disney World, but I am inclined to disagree.

I believe whoever gave Disney World that title must never have been to the Give Kids the World Village.