Give Kids The World Village: The wish-granting anti-hospital
Life with a critical illness takes a great toll on kids, and can steal away childhoods. This wish-granting non-profit helps them escape into a magical retreat
Emily Perez has a severe bleeding disorder in which blood does not clot properly. She was also born with a heart defect, which has so far necessitated five surgeries. In March 2019, when she was eight years old, Emily got the chance to go to Give Kids The World Village near the city of Orlando, Florida.
Children like Emily who are diagnosed with critical illnesses are eligible to have wishes granted through organisations such as the Make-A-Wish Foundation.
Roughly half wish to come to Orlando in central Florida, home to the theme parks Walt Disney World, Universal Orlando and SeaWorld. Many of these children and their families stay 22 miles south, at Give Kids The World Village.
Emily, who wants to be an artist and writer when she grows up, describes her visit this way: “The first thing we did was go to our villa. The kids’ room was so big and there was a huge bathroom, with a jacuzzi and little soaps that smelled like strawberries. Then I put on my swimsuit and was like, ‘The pool! The pool!’
"Children like Emily who are diagnosed with critical illnesses are eligible to have wishes granted"
“I could have ice cream for breakfast, lunch, dinner, or a snack. My parents still made me eat fruit, but after that? Ice cream time!
“I almost forgot the best part. The Castle of Miracles. There’s a room in it that’s like a fairy house with fairy doors, and a slide. I went down it like a million times until I finally saw that I could write a letter and leave it at the fairy door.
“It was so fun that we would go to the parks during the day but as soon as the sun had set I’d say, ‘Mummy, Daddy, come on. I don’t want to miss the Village activities.’ The last day I said, ‘We are not going to the parks today. We are staying at this Village.’ There’s so much that I can’t even say it all.”
Visiting Give The Kids The World Village
At Give Kids The World Village, illnesses seem to matter a little less, if only for a week. Days pass lightly and easily, as if the torment of the world is shushed once you reach the property. One parent told me it is as if the feelings of desperation are gone.
Chemotherapy, radiation, blood draws, injections, surgeries, scans, transfusions, and that sterile smell of hospital are far from mind at the Village, where children hop around the striped board of the world’s largest Candy Land game, slip down purple slides, and weave through seven-foot-tall candy canes.
From 7:30 in the morning until 9:30 at night, unlimited milkshakes, ice cream cones, banana splits, and sundaes are on offer at Henri’s Starlite Scoops, a $2-million space-themed building topped with a 30-foot UFO.
"Days pass lightly and easily, as if the torment of the world is shushed once you reach the property"
Every evening, a Cookie Cart rolls between family villas, serving freshly baked cookies and hot chocolate. Ask for a cookie, and volunteers will say, “Are you sure you don’t want two or three?” The gift shop is the only place visitors have to pay for anything, ever.
Like Emily, once they arrive, children realise they’d rather not fill their days at Disney World after all. They prefer to spend their time at the 89-acre storybook resort that was designed just for them.
And there is even a relaxation spa designed to provide parents and caregivers with a respite from the stress of caring for a critically ill child.
In the beginning
“I see life differently from someone who has not seen life’s dark side,” Henri Landwirth, founder of Give Kids The World, wrote in his 1996 memoir, Gift of Life. “Moments are precious, every moment.”
Landwirth and his twin sister, Margot, were born in Belgium in 1927 to Jewish clothing salesman Max Landwirth and his wife, Fanny. Three years later, the family moved to Krakow, Poland, Max’s home country.
After Germany invaded Poland in 1939, Max was taken to prison. Henri, Margot and Fanny were packed into train cars. Landwirth was 13 when he arrived at Auschwitz. He and his sister survived the war; his parents didn’t.
In 1950, Landwirth sailed to New York City as a deck labourer and got a job cutting diamonds in Manhattan. Drafted during the Korean War, he served for two years, based in the US, and then studied hotel management. In 1954, he moved to Miami, Florida, and by age 27 was manager at the President Madison Hotel in Miami Beach.
"Landwirth was 13 when he arrived at Auschwitz. He and his sister survived the war; his parents didn’t"
One evening, Landwirth loaned a tie to a man who needed one to dine in the hotel’s restaurant. That man was B G McNabb, who was helping develop the new space program at Cape Canaveral, including a 100-room hotel that he called the Starlite Motel.
When McNabb later needed someone to run it, he directed his employees to go to the President Madison Hotel and find the manager he remembered.
In the early days of space exploration, astronauts training for Project Mercury—the NASA program that put the first American astronauts in space—lived at the Starlite Motel. They included John Glenn (the first American to orbit Earth), who would become Henri’s business partner and godfather to one of his children.
By 1969, Landwirth owned his first Holiday Inn hotel near Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando. Because of the hotel’s proximity to the theme park, wish-granting organisations often asked Landwirth if he would donate free rooms to children and their families. He always said yes.
"No 'wish' child has ever been turned away, no matter how little advance notice the village is given"
One day, Landwirth noticed that a free reservation for a young girl named Amy had been cancelled. He asked why. Amy, who had leukemia, had passed away. Landwirth was upset. What if it happened again? What if another child simply ran out of time?
And so he did something about it.
Landwirth started Give Kids The World in 1986 with the idea of bringing together foundations, corporations, and individuals to benefit critically ill children and their families. Disney World and SeaWorld offered free park visits. He got 87 Orlando hotels to give the organisation free rooms. That first year, the collective brought 380 families to Florida.
It soon became evident that the need was greater than the supply. In 1989, Landwirth opened Give Kids The World Village on 31 acres in Kissimmee, Florida, with a board of representatives from Disney, Universal, PepsiCo, Discovery, Hershey and Hasbro.
Though Landwirth died in 2018 at age 91, his mission has continued: the park has grown to 89 acres and 166 villas. It has welcomed more than 187,000 families from all around the world.
In accordance with Landwirth’s founding principles, no “wish” child has ever been turned away, no matter how little advance notice the village is given nor how full the villas are. There is always room.
The mechanics of wish fulfilment
Give Kids The World Village is a registered nonprofit. Before the pandemic, it needed to raise $22 million a year in cash and $36 million in in-kind donations to fully fund its mission.
Although wish organisations cover travel costs for children and their families and pay the nonprofit an administration fee, it does not cover the cost of the wish.
In March 2020, as COVID-19 spread around the world, Give Kids The World Village closed its doors. It reopened the following January with new safety measures, and today is back to full capacity as the team works to fulfil the more than 6,000 wishes delayed due to the pandemic.
Since its inception, the nonprofit has spent 92 cents of every dollar raised on its mission, and just over seven cents on administration and fundraising.
In large part, Give Kids The World Village is able to focus so much on its core purpose because of its corporate partners: Walt Disney World is a founding sponsor, and “wish children” receive personalised visits from Disney characters and a Walt Disney World Wishes Pass.
Universal Orlando Resort, which has worked closely with Give Kids The World Village since 1990, donates free park tickets, as does SeaWorld Orlando. Perkins and Boston Market restaurants supply the food at the Village; Hasbro provides the toys.
A daily paradise
In many senses, the Village resembles a small, more whimsical and less commercial theme park. Inside the Castle of Miracles is a forest with a magic tree that makes pillows; under a giant red and white mushroom is the Enchanted Carousel, which has 22 hand-carved seats in the shape of animals.
There are free movies, wheelchair-accessible rides, and swimming pools where visitors can roll right into the water, thanks to the park’s water-safe wheelchairs.
Still, says Pamela Landwirth, president and CEO of Give Kids The World Village (and Henri’s ex-wife), it is not a theme park.
“The theme park industry wants to create that perfect experience because they want their guests to keep coming back over and over,” she says. “We want to create that perfect guest experience because ours get one shot. So the question is, how do we cram a lifetime of experiences into a week?”
"We want to create that perfect guest experience because ours get one shot"
The result is programming that reflects just that: The Big Bash Splash takes place every Sunday evening at the Park of Dreams Pool. Halloween is celebrated on Mondays, complete with trick-or-treating.
Tuesday evenings are marked by Stellar’s Star Show, a talent show for wish kids and their siblings. Wednesdays are for celebrating the birthday of Mayor Clayton, a 1.8-metre-tall bunny rabbit who is the Village “mayor” and partner to Ms Merry.
Thursdays bring Winter Wonderland, a holiday celebration featuring Santa, gifts and snow. Fridays feature a bash complete with costumes. And on Saturdays, families are treated to Mayor Clayton’s Silly Science Show.
It’s 365 days of the year condensed in one week—the highlight reel, just the hits and the holidays. “I spent 16 wonderful years of my career at Disney, and they call that the happiest place on earth,” says Pamela Landwirth. “But I think we outshine that.”
Experiences at the Give Kids The World Village are also highly personalised. Weeks before families arrive, volunteers call the children to ask: what’s your favourite colour? Your favourite food? Are there any Disney or Universal characters you want to meet? What do you really want to see and do? They then set out to make wishes come true.
One teen named Micah, who had an illness undetectable to the naked eye, told volunteers he felt like an outsider at school, invisible.
When Micah arrived at the Village, he was led to the castle and greeted by royal subjects, then crowned by a knight and dressed in all shades of blue. He was shown to a custom throne, where he could sit and gaze out over his court.
Anna, a girl in a wheelchair, wanted to feel like a princess and dance with her father. When Anna was on her trip, Belle from Beauty and the Beast visited from Disney World to help Anna choose a gown and to give her a makeover. Anna’s dad then lifted her from the wheelchair, and they twirled around the room.
“We start everything with ‘yes,’” Landwirth says of wish requests.
The Village’s mission is made possible by passionate volunteers who fill 1,800 shifts each week with the express purpose of helping someone else live out their dream vacation, even if only for a week.
Volunteer Brad Loewen first learned about Give Kids The World Village in 2008, shortly after his three-year-old son Noah was approved to receive a wish through Children’s Wish Foundation in the Canadian province of Manitoba.
Because of a rare genetic condition, in the first years of his life Noah spent more than 600 days at the Winnipeg Children’s Hospital. After his third birthday, the Loewen family applied to visit Disney World and received word: they’d be traveling to Florida and staying at Give Kids The World Village.
At first, Loewen wondered whether it was a good idea for them to travel all the way to Florida and stay at a place where they would be around other kids with illnesses—when that’s exactly what they had been doing for so long in the hospital. Wouldn’t it just be another place with sadness and challenge, disability and frustration?
Dismayed but undeterred, the family moved forward with the trip. Noah was going to meet Winnie the Pooh’s Tigger, his favourite character, and that was what was most important.
"It was the anti-hospital. It’s this magical, wondrous place. It is joy, expressed in real-life circumstances"
In February 2009, Noah travelled to Give Kids The World Village with the rest of the family: Brad and his wife Nichole, and their other two children, Kailyn and Josh, then eight and six.
“As soon as we got there, I knew,” says Loewen. “It was the anti-hospital. It’s this magical, wondrous place. It is joy, expressed in real-life circumstances.”
Noah loved it all: the pool, the popcorn, the pirate and princess party where he was given a sword. Meeting Tigger. But mostly, says Loewen, Noah loved watching his older siblings delight in their surroundings.
The family did go to Disney World and SeaWorld, but it was at the Village where they all felt the most comfortable. The most at peace. And that, Loewen says, was an amazing gift.
Five months after the Loewen family flew home, Noah died.
Afterward, Brad Loewen and his family wanted to stay connected with Give Kids The World. And so in 2012, they moved to Florida to volunteer at the Village: Brad, a paramedic, leading the First-Aid and CPR training at the park; Kailyn delivering pizza on a golf cart; Josh putting together gift bags; Nichole greeting guests.
“It’s not about us,” Loewen says. “We are just there to pour into the visitors the best Thursday night possible. The best Saturday possible. Whatever it is, let’s give them the best we can in that moment.”
Imagine—a world where everyone is doing just that. As one parent told me, “You cannot dream as big as this extraordinary place is.”
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