On May 29, 2011, I left my home to volunteer at Give Kids the World Village in Kissemmee, FL, a resort for families with children who have life-threatening illnesses. If a child with a life-threatening illness wishes through a wishing foundation, such as Make-A-Wish, to go to Disney World or Universal Studios or any of those places in Orlando, their family gets to stay at GKTW, and Give Kids takes care of everything for them. The following is an abridged version of an essay I wrote about my experience there.
I would not describe my week volunteering at Give Kids The World as a life-changing experience. It wasn’t like getting baptized or being paralyzed after a bad car wreck or getting married or having your first child in that I probably won’t ever point back to this experience and say, “my life was drastically different after this day.” Instead, the week that I spent volunteering at Give Kids The World was self-changing – or rather, self-refining. I learned so much about myself. I have a natural capacity to help, support, and serve, and I experienced the effort and initiative it takes to make use of it. I became aware of expectations and stereotypes I didn’t know I had. Mostly, I just learned about other people and the value of time. I experienced compassion in a way I hadn’t seen before through Give Kids The World – through its founder, the volunteers, and the families.
A few weeks before I left for Orlando, FL, I read the book, Gift of Life, written by the founder of GKTW, Henri Landwirth. It was, honestly, a very hard read. It was difficult imagining everything that Landwirth went through as a child during the Holocaust and his time spent in concentration camps and as a young man fighting with anger and pain as a result of the atrocities he endured; it really is beyond imagination. Reading Landwirth’s difficult questions about life and God and humanity, and in turn, asking them alongside him was the most painful challenge of the book. How could a good God let humans do such horrible things to their brothers? What exists in the human heart that could allow for so much evil to exist? Why do bad things happen to good people?
Landwirth responds, “Where does a heart truly broken, a spirit hopelessly abandoned, find hope? What exists within a human being that allows for survival amidst such devastation? It must be God. We might not know it, or believe it, when we are in the middle of the fire, but it must be God. Who else could it be?” As hard as it is for me to imagine having so much pain and suffering inflicted on me by other human beings and living to tell about it, it is even more difficult to imagine being able to live a truly fulfilling life afterward. It is hard to imagine what it would take to have an attitude like Landwirth’s – focusing on the good in human hearts and in the world, seeing things like hope as evidence of a good God. He writes so much about how wonderful people are and what a wonderful country America is; I take opportunity, education, freedom, kindness, compassion and so many other things for granted. I am humbled by his perspective and by how much he cares about people who are in need – in need of clothes or in need of smiles; I feel so small. I am inspired and challenged by the way he starts doing something as soon as he sees a need – even in the hotels he managed, he sought to do everything he could for other people. When he started GKTW, it was because he heard about one family, one little girl who died before her wish came true, and he was touched and determined that something like that never happen again. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard about a situation or an ongoing problem, and I’ve been moved and wanted something to change, but I haven’t done anything to change it myself. Maybe I didn’t believe that there was anything I could do that would actually make a difference.
I read Gift of Life to prepare myself for volunteering at GKTW, but I don’t think that anything could really fully prepare me. Before the trip, I expected the first few days to be really difficult. I thought it would be really hard to be around families whose children’s lives are at risk because of illness at first, but I would adjust after some time. Reflecting on the trip now, almost nothing happened the way I expected it to.
The morning of the first day at GKTW – Monday morning – we worked in the Gingerbread House. Mostly, we carried trays of food from the buffet line to the tables for each member of the families. It was a little awkward for me at first. It takes me a little while to get comfortable in a new environment, and it was intimidating not knowing exactly what to do or say while taking the trays and walking with the families. I was slightly relieved when someone called me over to help serve pastries and waffles. While standing there and talking with the two men who made the waffles, I got to observe the families. It was interesting – you could tell which families were the newer families and which ones were probably about to go home by their behaviors and responses. Some of them knew that the volunteers were going to take their trays to the tables, and they would pause for a second so someone could pick it up for them. Some of them acted surprised when someone would offer to take their tray.
I realized, sort of suddenly, while watching them that this could happen to anyone. Anyone's child could become life-threateningly ill. There were people from all walks of life and places, and they were all different. Some of them were the sort of people you'd expect to find in a Methodist church in a rural town, and some of them looked like they might live in a less-than-savory part of a big city. There were big families of seven or eight members, and there were young, single moms who came with their only child and a brother or sister or mother. I was a bit shocked when I noticed that this surprised me. Somewhere deep inside me, I think expected all of the families to be sort of the same – clean, sort of poor, but still middle-class, with two or three children – but I was not conscious of this at all. I was also surprised by how normal the families seemed to me. As I said, I expected that being around these children and their families would be really hard at first, but it wasn't. It was practically impossible to imagine what they were really going through; I really didn't have a grid for their experiences. Seeing them at Give Kids, they just seemed like any other family on vacation: happy, smiling, sunburned, the kids excited, the parents a little tired. It was wonderful. It was one of the best ways that reality could contradict my expectations.
Monday evening was Kids' Night Out. I remember sitting and waiting to be picked by a kid to be their companion for the evening. I waited a long time. Even Bill Allan was chosen before me. Finally, I was chosen by a four-year-old boy named Tondy (short for Thomas). My friends, Jessica and Andrea, were chosen by Tondy's twin, Nick Nack (short for Nicolas), and their older brother, Joseph, so the six of us spent the evening together. Before he left, their dad explained to us that Nick Nack and Joseph were both autistic. During dinner, Joseph showed us all his Star Wars and Pirates of the Caribbean action figures. At first, he didn't really want his little brothers to play with them, but after only a moment, he handed his Jack Sparrow figure to Nick Nick.
“Nicolas, did you get to see Jack Sparrow at the parks today?” I asked. He nodded, saying, “Jack Sparrow is my buddy.”
After a while, Tondy started to act disinterested in his food. He said, “No, please,” to having any chicken, and when he refused his cake, Joseph turned to him with a concerned expression and asked, “Are you okay, Tondy?” Tondy said he wasn't okay. I'm pretty sure that he was alright, but that's what he said. Joseph asked, “What's wrong?” I don't remember the conversation after that, but Joseph's expression when he asked Tondy what was wrong is hard to forget. It was such a soft, compassionate look. I later leaned that Joseph was the wish child of the family. Knowing that, I am so impressed with and inspired by the way that he got down on his brother's level and cared for him over something so simple as not wanting to eat cake, even when he could have just as easily resented Tondy for getting worked up over “nothing” since he must’ve been facing health difficulties every day. Joseph responded before my friends and I were even alarmed.
As we went through the evening with these boys, I started to notice a pattern with them. Whenever I asked Tondy or Nick Nack what they wanted or what their favorite color or game or anything was, they would invariably tell me about what their twin's favorite thing was or they would choose something because they knew the other one liked it. For example, I asked Tondy, “Do you want an orange or green balloon?” He replied, “Orange. Nicolas likes orange.” It was kind of amazing – they were all thinking about the others.
During Kids' Night Out, Joseph volunteered and was selected to participate in a game show on stage in front of all the other children. He answered trivia questions and enjoyed himself and smiled the whole time. When his father came to pick the children up, he asked particularly about Joseph, and I told him about how he was on the winning two-man team for the game show, and his dad responded with moderate shock. “That's amazing,” he said. “Joseph has autism, and he has a really hard time coming out of his shell sometimes. I wouldn't have imagined that he would do that.” It was a small miracle. I feel like that is what GKTW is about – it's about giving kids an opportunity to do something that they wouldn't get to do in their normal, everyday life, not just by making it possible for them to go to Disney World and the other parks, but also during the time that they spend at GKTW. Every moment matters to those kids, and it's beautiful the way that Give Kids sees that and makes the most of each of those moments. I feel so fortunate to have been a part of that, and I don't want to stop making moments matter now that I'm home.
On Tuesday, we helped clear out a very large storage barn filled with Christmas decorations. Probably because of the heat and dehydration, I began feeling weak and dizzy. Even though for me, it was such a little thing, I felt disappointed and frustrated that I couldn't help as much as I wanted to because I was feeling sick. It made me think about how much more these kids must feel that way sometimes (for example, one of the boys that we met there couldn't ride on certain rides at the parks because of his condition, and his dad expressed some regret about; there was a definite sense of loss), and how, because of that feeling of being left out or unable to do something they want to do, GKTW and wish-granting foundations must mean so much to them and their families. It was humbling to be a part of that.
Later in the day, while we were visiting the gift shop, we met a small family of three. Their son was probably only three or four years old. The father asked for a picture with the whole group. While he was explaining how much everything meant to them and how amazed and grateful they were that twelve people would come from Kansas to make these kids' wishes possible, I looked at the mother – she had tears running down her face. It never hit me before how much something like that could mean to someone. Before the trip, I thought that it would be a fun and good thing to do; I also thought, “It's not really changing the world or making a big difference” – not like going to Africa and helping make sustainable agriculture a reality while teaching people about God's love and providing revolutionary medical care for AIDS patients. But when I saw those tears on that mother's face, my whole attitude changed. An action doesn't have to change the world or make a big difference for it to be incredibly important and necessary.
That night, while working in the pizza kitchen, I drove Arlen to deliver some pizzas. At our last stop, he began having a conversation about Give Kids with the woman who ordered the pizza. He told her about the life-threatening condition his daughter had as a small child and about how his family came to GKTW as a wish family. Her daughter had a kidney issue, she said, and they were waiting for a kidney transplant. She told him that there had been several times that the doctors didn't think her daughter was going to make it through the night. She said that she went into the hospital room during those times to say goodbye to her little girl, and her daughter would tell her, “I ain't going nowhere, Mommy. I'm staying right here.” She said that her daughter was her hero. I realized then that these families really experience something more difficult that most of us can imagine. I understood this with a weak understanding before the trip – meaning, I understood it in rhetoric. Once I heard this mother's story, saw the tears well up in her eyes, and listened to her voice shake when she talked about how proud she was of her little girl, I understood with a totally different kind of understanding – much deeper and more real.
On Wednesday morning, I worked in the Ice Cream Palace. While I was there, a British family came in to get some breakfast and ice cream. They had a son who was severely handicapped and buckled into a wheelchair. His name was Charlie, and he was absolutely the most charming child I met at GKTW. He couldn't speak, but he was so happy, and when his parents and his sister talked to him about the parks and what they were going to do that day, he would get very excited and shout and move so much he’d shake his wheelchair. He was strapped into his chair with a safety harness, and still, he had the most unbridled enthusiasm I've ever seen.
Thursday night was Christmas, the absolute best part of my time at GKTW. My favorite moment and the moment that I most often relate to others happened during Christmas. After we paraded ourselves through GKTW in our Christmas-themed costumes (I got to be the Snow Princess!), we had a totally awesome dance party near Julie's Sarafi Theater (where Santa was giving out gifts). There was one audacious little girl who gathered many of us into one large circle to dance. Charlie's mother wheeled him into the middle of our circle, and Charlie, with all his unbridled enthusiasm, danced better and more energetically than all of us, and it didn't matter that he was in a wheelchair. His face was absolutely glowing. I tell this story to people who haven't been to Give Kids because I think it epitomizes the miracle of GKTW. At Give Kids, the kids get to do things that they hadn’t been able to do before, things that they wouldn't get to do normally, and it means the world to them and their loved ones. There was a couple volunteering whose granddaughter had been to Give Kids the World as a wish child. She had died sometime afterward, but her grandparents said that while she was at GKTW, she forgot she was sick. That's the miracle of Give Kids The World.
On Friday, I worked in the LaTiDa Spa. I was the tattoo artist (I did airbrush tattoos for the kids). The wish kids were often afraid to let me give them a tattoo because of the airbrushing tool, even after I demonstrated how it worked on one of their family members. One little girl was very frightened and cried to her grandpa in Spanish. He apologized to me and explained, “She thinks you are a nurse.” It was a very sobering moment – to think what these kids go through every day.
Friday was my last day at GKTW. I really didn’t want to leave. Coming home was the most difficult part of the trip. It felt crazy. For some of those kids, time is very short, and for all of them, it is incredibly precious. If time is so important there, why was I leaving while there were still children there? It didn’t make any sense; it felt backwards or inside out. I would still go back in an instant if someone gave me the opportunity.
In every way, Give Kids The World exceeded my expectations, but not only that, it often challenged my expectations and stereotypes in the most beautiful way. It expanded the way I saw and understood human services and compassion. Compassion is seeing a need and being moved to fulfill it – then and not later. It is something active and unyielding to hesitation or setbacks. I learned this through Landwirth’s efforts to start something as incredible as GKTW and through the volunteers’ efforts to continue it. Compassion is also showing someone kindness and respect and warmth when they are going through a difficult experience, and I think that it is showing others those same qualities when you are going through difficult experiences of your own. I learned this through the families and watching the way they treated each other.
I recently read The Road Less Traveled by M. Scott Peck, and he writes that grace is all around us and miracles happen every day – we just don’t take the time to recognize them. During this trip, I realized how I often take people and time for granted. Give Kids The World showed me the miracle of compassion and the miracle of time – how important it is to notice them! Life is the most precious and beautiful miracle.