This Theme Park is Designed to Lift the Spirits of Sick ChildrenSep 19, 2019
Neal McCord works a job that most people at first glance would think twice about having. He is the vice president of project management at the Give Kids The World Village, a nonprofit all-inclusive resort designed for children diagnosed with life-threatening illnesses.
For the last 12 years, he hasn’t gone a day without someone asking how he does it without crying or becoming horribly depressed. McCord couldn’t disagree more. His job brings him extreme joy every day. He told A Plus, “These kids are having the times of their lives. They are laughing, they are giggling, they are playing, they are doing kid things they have never ever done before.” Who wouldn’t want to see that kind of happiness?
About Give Kids The World
In 1986, a little girl named Amy had a wish to visit the esteemed amusement parks of Orlando, Florida. However, Amy’s wish came with a time limit, due to her diagnosis of leukemia. Her family was so burdened down with medical bills that they would never be able to afford a hotel room for the vacation. They requested a complimentary stay at a central Florida Holiday Inn. Henri Landwirth, the hotel’s owner, obliged, but due to logistical complications, the trip was delayed and Amy sadly passed away before her wish was granted.
After that day, Landwirth made a vow that no sick child would ever be failed again. His dream was to offer free accommodations to children and their families, all who wished to visit the many Florida tourist attractions, like Disney World, Sea World, Legoland, and children’s museums. He called the program Give Kids The World. As word spread about his program, he quickly realized the demand was greater than the capacity of his Holiday Inn. Three years later, he established the nonprofit organization Give Kids The World Village.
The village, located in Kissimmee, Florida, has expanded from its 11 acre beginnings into an 84 acre magical wonderland. It doesn’t just house sick children who want to visit the surrounding fun parks. It is made for them. Every square inch of the camp is designed to bring happiness. The Village contains 168 villas, a cafeteria, a carousel, a magic bike ride, a swimming pool (which accommodates wheelchairs), remote control boats, a mini golf, a castle, and a handicap-accessible 15,000 square foot playground. Among visitors and staff, the Village is referred to as “camp.”
While families make a year-round pilgrimage to use the Village as their home base while they visit neighboring areas, it is easy to see why many families end up never leaving the camp itself.
“When the families are here, in many cases, it’s maybe the first time that child and that family has ever felt like they are not alone,” McCord said. “There are other bald-headed little girls running around here and other little boys with feeding tubes and other kids using wheelchairs.”
Day-to-day life for a family with a terminally ill child is harrowing and stressful. There are doctor appointments, painful treatments, outrageous expenses, and unending worry. Even when a parent would want nothing else but to see their child happy and have everything they want, many are forced to say “no” due to risks and limitations imposed by the disease.
Life at Give Kids The World Village is different. According to the organization’s website, “Requests are granted and limitations are eliminated: “Yes, you can have ice cream for breakfast. Yes, wheelchairs are allowed in the pool. Yes, you can ride the train again.” Every day is a cornucopia of fun and entertainment for the whole family. A talent show one day, a chance to play the world’s largest Candy Land board game, horse riding. For a time, children get to lose their label as the “sick kid” and just simply be a “kid.” Most of all, the camp offers families a sense of hope, happiness, and support that lasts long after they return home.
The Village is now an international phenomenon. Kids from 76 different countries and all 50 states make the trek with their families in order to come to camp. In its 30+ years of existence, the Village has hosted more than 150,000 families. McCord and the rest of the crew have no desire to stop any time soon. Not with 27,000 children who are diagnosed with life-threatening illnesses each year.
Most of the families discover Give Kids The World Village through wish foundations like Make-A-Wish or by a referral from their doctor. On average, there are 511 “wish kids” from Make-A-Wish foundation who stay with Give Kids The World in any given month. Give Kids The World can grant a child’s wish come true for much cheaper than other organizations in Florida can offer. Nowhere else will a family receive free food, tickets, and housing for their vacation.
“Give Kids The World is more than just accommodations for our wish families,” said Kristina Hesse, who works on the Mission Advancement team at Make-A-Wish. “It becomes a home away from home for those families.”
One of the biggest misconceptions is that most of the children who attend these resorts end up dying, like little Amy. Quite the contrary. According to Hesse, most ‘wish kids’ actually go on to lead happy, healthy lives. In fact, there is a growing amount of evidence that programs such as Give Kids The World and Make-A-Wish increase a child’s recovery chances.
Jamie Rubin, a member of the corporate alliance team at Make-A-Wish, said, ”We have learned many, many things, but certainly what rises to the top is that positive experiences have life-changing effects on the wish family and the wish child.”