It has been quite a few years since I initially started asking folks from CoasterBuzz to donate to Give Kids The World. It was such a natural fit for anyone who already had an interest in the amusement industry, or even the broader hospitality industry (are there such things as hotel enthusiasts?). Once I became a parent, it seemed like an even bigger deal, because I couldn't imagine my child not being able to have something resembling a normal vacation, where a family could create important memories.
Since that time, Kara, one of my BFF's, started working there, and I've gotten to know the president of the charity a little as well. The weird thing, however, is that after nearly four years, I still had not been to the village. Part of the reason was that it just wasn't convenient, but I think a part of me was a little worried about what I would see there. Since I was already in Florida this week for a funeral, and didn't have my family with me, it seemed like the timing was as good as it was going to get to make a visit.
By the time I left, my commitment to the organization doubled. I'm sure I'll continue to donate, but I'd like to offer volunteer hours or anything else I can do as well. What I saw there was amazing. The marketing materials are one thing, but when you see a kid in a wheelchair having fun with his family on the carousel, or a little girl with no hair splashing around in the pool, it changes you. These families are having the same experiences that any other healthy family would have, only without cost or worry. They're surrounded by others having a difficult time. If that weren't enough, they're surrounded by volunteers doing their best to show them a good time. It's the very best of people in action.
The resort itself, and it really is a resort, is beautiful. The villas are cozy, and range from colorful to classic Florida style. The playground and main pool are easily as good, if not better, than the typical resort. There are train rides, mini golf, a carousel, games, live entertainment, horse rides... so much to do! Perkins Restaurants staffs the main dining hall, and yes, you can famously have ice cream for breakfast. As much as families may run off to Disney World, they have a wonderful and comfortable environment to come home to.
The lightness of the environment in part hides the gravity of the situation that so many of these families share. Kara showed me the small, faith-agnostic chapel, where you can write anything you'd like in books there. The ceiling has a series of layered clouds, and stained glass windows represent the four seasons. She told me the story of a family that visited, and the child, despite his illness, was being a typical kid, throwing his blanket up in the air while his dad wrote in one of the books. Later that night, they couldn't find the child's blanket at bed time, and so they finally asked him if he knew where he left it. He told his dad, "I threw it up into the clouds in the chapel, so Jesus could hold it for me when I go to heaven."
Regardless of your religious beliefs, or if you don't identify with any faith at all, the story really puts into context the intensity of what these families go through. I can't honestly imagine a child having to deal with the knowledge of his or her imminent death. Most adults don't even have to deal with it. It seems insane for a child to ever have to think about it.
And again, that's what I love about GKTW. The organization helps thousands of families put all of that into the background, even if it's just for a few days. It might be the only happy week a family gets, and those memories are priceless. Some kids do recover from their illness, and you never really know if the hope and joy of that week has something to do with it.
So that's my pitch. You can donate at http://www.gktw.org/. If now isn't a good time, it would be great if you could participate in Coasting For Kids again next year (date forthcoming), or one of the other events. Now that I've been there, I'm going to bug you even more to help me out.