Daily Impact

This Magical Wonderland Was Built Specifically For Kids With Life-Threatening Illnesses

We love tinsel and trappings as much as the next Elf on the Shelf devotees, but here at A Plus, we believe that true wintertime magic comes in the form of connection and human kindness. Over the next month, come back and join us in raising a glass to those who give — because what's December without a little holiday spirit?

For years, friends of Neal McCord have told him that they could never have his job. They all think it'd just be too sad.

McCord is the vice president of project management at the Give Kids The World Village, a nonprofit getaway designed for children who have been diagnosed with a life-threatening illness. For the 12 years he's worked there, McCord says basically everyone he knows has made a comment about how if they had his job, they'd probably just be crying all the time.

"But it is just the opposite," he told A Plus in a phone interview. "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."

The 84 acre village doesn't just house sick children who want to visit the surrounding central Florida amusement parks, it is designed for them. Every inch of the camp is meant to lift their spirits. Entire families pour into the camp on a year-round basis for a cost-free vacation and use it as a home base while they travel the area. Many end up spending their time in the actual camp itself.

The mission of the camp started in 1986 when Henri Landwirth, who owned a central Florida Holiday Inn, got a request to give free accommodations to a dying child. Landwirth obliged, but logistical complications delayed the trip and the little girl eventually died of leukemia. Her request set off a chain of events that made Landwirth realize there was a real demand for what she needed — a place to stay as she fulfilled a wish to visit some of central Florida's popular attractions for kids. He continued to offer accommodations for free to other kids, and called the program Give Kids The World. Quickly, he realized the demand was so great his Holiday Inn wasn't enough, and in 1989 he opened a nonprofit called Give Kids The World Village. 

At the time, the village was made up of 32 villas on an 11 acre property with little more than a place to sleep. Today, Give Kids The World Village is an 84 acre property with 168 villas, a cafeteria, a carousel, a magic bike ride, a swimming pool, remote control boats, mini golf, a castle and a fully wheelchair-accessible 15,000 square foot playground, among other things. Simply put: it's kid heaven.

"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."

Those kids have come from 76 different countries all over the world and from all 50 states here in the U.S. McCord said they will be hosting their 158,000th family in the near future. But there is still more they hope to do: 27,000 children are diagnosed with life-threatening illnesses each year. Most of the kids find Give Kids The World Village through wish foundations like Make-A-Wish or by a referral from their doctor. Often times, when a family is informed about a life-threatening illness, they are told by their doctor about potential wish organizations they could look to, McCord said. 

Part of Give The Kids The World's success is that they have partnered their way to helping facilitate these cost-free trips. One integral partner is Make-A-Wish. On average, there are 511 "wish kids" from Make-A-Wish foundation who are staying with Give Kids The World in any given month. For Make-A-Wish, Give Kids The World is vital because they can make granting a wish far cheaper for local chapters in Florida. If a kid can stay at the village, they will get free food, tickets, and housing for their trip. 

"Give Kids The World is more than just accommodations for our wish families," Kristina Hesse, who works on the Mission Advancement team at Make-A-Wish, told A Plus. "They provide such an amazing experience outside of just a place to stay. The village completely caters to families and kids with special needs… it just becomes a home away from home for those families."

Other private companies step up, too. Boston Market, Perkins and Papa Johns donate food and money. Local wish foundations pay stipends to send children to Give Kids The World. Disney Universal and Seaworld donate tickets to come see the attractions. To cover remaining costs to run the village, about $17 million throughout the year, Give Kids The World fundraises through golf tournaments, silent auctions, black tie gala events, Internet donations and various fundraisers throughout the year in conjunction with different partners. 

At the end of the day, though, all the work is worth it. Hesse and McCord both said that the families usually don't even understand what they are walking into until they arrive at the village. 

"Many families are told this is where they are coming, this cost-free accommodation, but they don't know what it is," McCord said. "The look on their faces of amazement when they realize that we're not a motel or a hotel… is one of the greatest things you witness here."

Once they're on campus, it's all about the kids. The children stay in the master suite, get to eat ice cream as many times a day as they want, and are bombarded with nonstop entertainment throughout the week. There are talent shows, the world's largest Candyland game, daily gifts delivered, character visits from the theme parks and Monday night Halloween. Parents find new support systems and often times stay in touch long after the camp. Kids make new friends that they visit and spend time with once their week is over. 

Hesse said one of the biggest misconceptions is that most of these kids end up dying. On the contrary, she said, most wish kids actually go on to live happy, healthy lives. Jamie Rubin, who works on the corporate alliance team at Make-A-Wish, echoed that sentiment, and added that there is a growing pile of evidence programs like Make-A-Wish and Give Kids The World end up improving children's life outcomes.

"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," Rubin said.

Cover photo: Give Kids The World