In the middle of the campus there is a nondescript building of tan siding. You may pass this building, well-maintained, yet subtle in appearance, as your eye focuses on the more colorful buildings that sprinkle the village. If you are really paying attention, you may notice that it has four stained-glass windows, but even they don’t obstruct the views. There is a large red heart surrounded by four pink hearts that hangs above the door, a cornice decoration. The automatic wood door, with etched glass, swings outward. Walking inside, you are in a small, sweet chapel. The color of the windows fill the space, depicting scenes of the four seasons, each with a motif of birds and the special symbols that seem to be part of the Give Kids the World story. Each picture depicts a word. The words could be the mission statement of the organization: peace, love, hope and faith. (The actual mission statement states Give Kids the World exists only to fulfill the wishes of all children with life-threatening illnesses and their families from around the world to experience a memorable, joyful, cost-free visit to the Central Florida attractions and to enjoy Give Kids the World Village–for as long as there is a need.) The circular formation of the room is adorned with a comforting blue carpet and curved pews that accent the orb. Opposite the door is another stained glass depiction of angels above a pathway heading to an unknown distance. As you look up, the natural ceiling of the room gives way to a dome. White three dimensional clouds made of wood and plaster layer the transition from wall to dome in three stair-like layers before a blue sky, that mirrors the carpet, lifts your eye to the dome above. The silky silhouettes of clouds are a new transition until natural sunlight fills the dome from small windows. If children were given the opportunity to decorate a church, this is how they would. It has a sense of calm, while also hosting the whimsy of the heavens and the color of the windows.
They had a conversation with him just a couple days before. He was very ill and they knew his time with them was drawing to an end. The time they were sharing at the Village was to be one of their last family memories. They knew it to be true. They shared their faith as they talked to him about the days ahead and told him he did not need to be afraid. He would be going to heaven to be with Jesus. He would see his grandparents there. This curious and rambunctious boy would have no less than the truth of what was happening to him and they honored him by sharing their faith.
He was known by the staff as Linus, because throughout the week, wherever he was, his blanket was with him. It was his comfort and would be a comfort to his parents in the days he would no longer carry it. The night before they were to leave the Village, the boy’s dad came frantically running to guest services. They could not find the blanket anywhere. They had retraced their steps and it was nowhere to be found. The blanket had to be found. The boy could not leave without the blanket. THEY could not leave without the blanket. Heading back into a world where illness would be back in the limelight, that blanket and its comfort would be a necessity.
The staff searched the whole campus for the blanket, into the next morning, all hands were searching. To their dismay, the blanket could not be found. At sunlight, the Dad rushed back to Guest Services, only to learn the blanket was still missing. The staff of Give Kids the World asked where the blanket could be purchased. They would have a replacement for him before he left for the day. The father knew that a replacement blanket was not the same. The boy, realizing that everyone was looking for his missing treasure, interrupted, “I threw my blanket into the clouds, Daddy.” The father leaned down to the boy asking what he meant. “I threw my blanket into the clouds, so it would be there when I got to go be with Jesus.” A staff member located the blanket in the chapel, in the clouds. Just where the boy thought it should be for his next adventure.
Throughout the week, the campus of the Village is full of entertainment and activities for the families who call it home for their week in Central Florida to enjoy. From a splash pad called Park of Dreams to the two pools, the children can beat the heat in accessible cold water. Each night there is a themed party where the kids can play carnival style games, dance and celebrate. On Wednesday night, there is Village Idol, where wish kids are able to perform and compete for the night. Partner corporations like Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando Resort, provide special interaction for the guests with their famous characters. The guests of the Village are able to enjoy a non-rushed visit with their favorite characters in the cool of air-conditioning. Volunteer photographers snap photos to capture the event. On Monday, Mickey, Goofy and Mary Poppins joined the kids. The sisters of one of the wish kids, at the age where the characters are confusing, scary, yet fully enticing all at the same time, quickly made their way to Mary Poppins’ side where they crossed their arms, diverted their eyes, and puckered their lips. Mary Poppins, quickly bent down forming the perfect pout, to create a magical picture. Again, everyone in the village meeting the kids where they are, how they are, with only one objective; make magic happen. Sunday, Storm Troopers, joined children riding the Merry-Go-Round. Universal will be bringing characters on Friday. All with one goal, to bring joy to these children.
On Wednesday and Saturday mornings, local stables bring horses for the children to ride at Keaton’s Korral, a white fenced riding circle with a red barn. This morning, Ginger and Silhouette, the volunteer horses, rode gently their special riders. Throughout the morning children would hurry their parents toward the corral. Spencer wanted to just climb through the fencing to get to the horse, but with a little convincing, he waited his turn, placing the safety helmet on his head. Children who have never been exposed to horses, shared this was their most wanted event of the week. A twelve year old boy bound to his wheel chair, confidently sat astride Silhouette. His parents made a special request to get a picture of them with their son while he was on the horse. “We have very few pictures with him when he is not in his chair,” his mother shared. While he sat upon the horse, they stood close by, getting their picture.
Sisters, Cora and Abby, raced to the gates. Wearing hot pink matching collared shirts and floral shorts, I commented how cute they looked in their matching clothes. Abby, the wish child and younger sister, looked up at me through her thick yellow glasses and excitedly shared, “ We are the same in every way except we have our own names.” The girls, who were less than two years apart in age, both under six, encouraged the other, as their excitement masked a bit of fear. Later in the morning, I ran into the girls at the resort’s child-sized spa. As I walked in, Abby ran to me to show me her bright yellow fingernails. “Abby, I am guessing that yellow is your most favorite color.” She looked at me with a huge smile and surprised eyes, “It is! How did you know?” Cora, had assessed the situation at the spa and decided some changes were in order. She kindly dismissed the clinician who was there to paint her nails, took her seat, and insisted she would be painting the nails of the clinician instead. Each nail, a different color. The nail bed, merely a suggestion of where the paint should go. These sisters were a demonstration of how Give Kids the World recognizes, that while only one child in the family is ill, all of the children within the family face the challenges. To Henry Landwirth, his love for his twin sister, Margot, was a defining relationship. Every sibling who makes the wish trip with the celebrated child receives the gifts, treats and opportunities as their ill sibling. There is only one opportunity reserved solely for the wish child—a star permanently placed in the Castle.
The Castle of Miracles is an appropriate name, as within its walls resides the name of every wish child who has been a guest of the Village. Each child, is given their star which they are asked to decorate with their name. That star is placed in a very special box, where Stellar, the Star Fairy, captures the star, using her fairy dust to hang it within the walls of the Castle of Miracles. The Star Tower, a turret with stars decorating its walls for more than three stories, is a beautiful artpiece of glittering gold stars swirling the walls. The stars have overflowed the tower, now filling the ceiling and walls of the main rooms of the castle as well. These stars will remain. They are a small representation of the children who are the stars of the Village, who will be remembered as special miracles for all time.
“Each man’s spiritual journey is different. I am not here to say that one answer is right and another is wrong. The only words I have to offer are these–a man is richer by what he gives than he can ever be by what he owns or what he receives. For me, belief in a higher power carries with it the responsibility of actions.” –Henri Landwirth, Gift of Life
The only difficult part of the time I have spent at Give Kids the World is not wanting to sit and hear the stories that brought the families to this place; To take their pictures, so you can see these miracle children and have faces you can pray over. It is out of respect for the families’ privacy that the names used in this post are changed. It is for the purpose of keeping their joy in the opportunity of this amazing week, that there is no room to focus on the part of their life that is outside these gates. So I hope these words can present the picture of these beautiful children living within strong and powerful families, who are overcoming the trials of illness. If you must have a visual, picture beauty with wonderment in her eyes and a smile on his lips.
I encourage you to go to GKTW.org and donate today. We will be drawing names for a weekend at a Hilton property on June 11th. For every $25 you donate, we will add your name. The full rules of the drawing can be found in part 1 of this series. Please join me tomorrow for part three, an insight in the Volunteer experience at Give Kids the World.