Let me start by saying as a rule I am skeptical of non-profits and charities. My wife and I try to do a lot to help others in our community, but we prefer to do it directly. When large sums of money are involved, I get worried about misuse or waste. There’s too much potential for the darker side of human nature to corrupt the potential good works that the organization originally set out to do. So keep all of that in mind as I describe our recent experience.
I’ve lived in Florida for 40 years, the vast majority of those in Central Florida within a stones throw of the big theme parks. I’ve grown up with the attractions and seen scores of people experience magic that turned grown men and women into giggling children. I’ve even been a part of the magic making and had a hand in making some of those experiences special. We take it for granted living here year round but for many people it is the trip of a lifetime. For some families however, it’s even more than that.
I’ve known about the Give Kids the World organization for quite a while. Working in the parks and visiting often, I’ve seen kids and families at various attractions with the signature shirts and badges. I knew that they gave magical vacations to kids (and their families) with life threatening illnesses but I’m sorry to say that’s about as much as I knew. This past week that all changed, and I can’t begin to tell you how much it impacted me.
For the past several years GKTW has hosted a Blogger Bash event to raise awareness about their efforts and encourage local bloggers to help spread the word and be their “awareness angels.” This year we were invited to attend the event and experience the Give Kids the World Village firsthand. Having never been and with a strong desire to get more involved with local charities, we excitedly accepted.
Give Kids The World is a non-profit organization that 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 the magic of Give Kids The World Village for as long as there is a need.
What we saw was absolutely incredible. The village itself was like something straight out of a cartoon or story book. The entire
Complex was like a tiny little town with rows of perfect animated houses painted in whimsical colors each with a personalized sign welcoming the family that will live there for the duration of their visit. The houses, streets and common area buildings were absolutely beautiful and kept up to a Disney standard of quality. When kids came here, they truly were transported to another world.
All of the staff are volunteers, most of them teenagers, who attended to us with more kindness and earnestness than most professionals I’ve encountered. They were genuinely overjoyed to be there and to help us, and we weren’t even the real guests. I kept thinking, “What sorcery is this and how can I use it on my teenagers?”
But the thing that struck me the most were the sponsors. Walk around the village, through the food, past the auditorium and pool, and even amongst the rides and theater and there isn’t a single “sponsored by” our “brought to you by” sign in sight. The food in the food court was 100% donated by Papa Johns, Boston Market, Perkins and Krispy Kreme Donuts but there wasn’t a sign or placard anywhere. Seeing those signs elsewhere always made me feel like the donation was done for publicity more than it was to actually help whomever they were giving it to. But at the village there was none of that. The pizzeria was just a a pizzeria and the chicken and mac-n-cheese was just chicken and mac-n-cheese. The overall effect gave the kids a sense of being in a real magical place and not at the center of a charity case. It gave me a whole new level of respect and admiration for the companies who donated.
As we sat and listened to GKTW president Pamela Landwirth talk about their mission and all of the work they’ve done with visiting families, we could see the genuine smile on her face. There was a warmth and genuine commitment to give these kids, who have suffered so much, a few days of incredible happiness. She talked about how low their administrative costs were as a percentage of the donations the took in, an unheard of 1.9%. It was inspiring beyond words. Then we watched the video challenge from Kevin Bacon when he came to the village a couple weeks prior and challenges one of the kids to an ice cream eating contest which led to a challenge to support GKTW. At the end of it all I wanted to stand up and volunteer right there on the spot.
After a brief Q&A the group set out on a tour of the village. The weather wasn’t exactly cooperating (as is typical for a summer afternoon in Florida) so we caught most of the neighborhood through our minivan windows, but I had seen enough. The level of genuine commitment, the lack of sponsor self-aggrandizing, the fiscal efficiency. They really are here to change lives. When they say they “exist only to fulfill the wishes of all children with life-threatening illnesses”, they really mean it and they really need help doing it.
If all that sounds too good to be true, don’t take my word for it. Check them out on the independent charity evaluation site CharityNavigator.com. Give Kids the World earned their highest rating, 4 out of 4 stars, and got a perfect 100 for accountability and transparency.
So the next time you’re planning a vacation to Central Florida or maybe just another day trip to the parks, think about setting something aside to help a family who has been dealing with so much stress and sadness and can’t make it without help. Think about the little girl whose greatest wish after being diagnosed with leukemia was to meet princess Elsa and how you can help make that happen. Take some time or some money and help the people who truly make magic in Central Florida, Give Kids the World.
Click photos to enlarge
Jason Grooms, Owner & Chief Adventurer of The Brainy Tourist, is an incredibly lucky husband and proud father of six ever-inquisitive kids (and one adult). He has his degree in Cultural Anthropology from University of West Florida and has lived in Florida for 40 years, exploring all corners of this amazing state. Jason has been an animal show presenter, adventure guide, field trip leader, archeologist, training developer, writer, photographer, and all around adventurer.