Can you describe Give Kids The World (GKTW) Village?
We have a 79-acre (32-hectare) ‘storybook resort’ in Kissimmee, Florida, especially made for children with life-threatening illnesses. Wish-granting organisations arrange for the children to come here while they visit Florida’s many attractions.
There are 144 two-bedroom villas, where the child and their family stay for a week. We’re building 24 additional villas because visitor numbers keep growing.
We’ve got a number of attractions, such as a carousel, which was donated by Vekoma in 1994, a train ride and a beautiful wheelchair-accessible playground. A new addition is our magic bike ride, Lori’s Magical Flight, which was donated last November by Zamperla. The ride is wheelchair accessible and it’s amazing to see a child go on a ride for the first time.
The entire Village is wheelchair accessible, even the resort area pool, which has a a zero-entry pool where kids in wheelchairs can go right into the water.
In terms of theming, what is it like?
It’s very whimsical, like it’s right out of the Candy Land game. Everything is childlike, such as the Ice Cream Palace, which looks like a huge banana split, the Gingerbread House where families dine at breakfast and dinner and the dinosaur-themed miniature golf course.
How many visitors do you normally have?
About 80 per cent of the year, we have to locate families off property because we’re full. Those families can still come and enjoy all the activities, but it’s our goal to get as many families staying on-site as we possibly can. We host about 8,000 families per year.
What’s the process for families who want to visit?
GKTW is for children between the ages of three and 18 who have a life-threatening illness. After a diagnosis, a child life specialist or social worker sometimes sits down with the family to talk about the things that are going to happen next.
One of the things the families learn is that they’re eligible for a wish. They’ll be given a list of wish-granting organisations that they can call when they’re ready to have their wish. The organisation will send someone out to meet the child and discuss what they would like.
About 50 per cent of children wish to come to Central Florida and experience the magic it has to offer. It’s pretty impressive – and shows what an amazing industry it is.
What do families get to do?
Families get to go to Walt Disney World, SeaWorld Orlando, Universal Orlando, LEGOLAND Florida and the local attractions like Gatorland completely free.
Thanks to the IAAPA World Passport for Kids, families can visit any participating member park in the world for 12 months after their stay with us. With around 200 participating parks, it extends the wish.
Do you provide special medical facilities?
Our whole mission is to take children away from the environment they’re accustomed to, so we don’t want to have anything that will remind them of doctors’ offices. We’ve got a wonderful relationship with the local hospitals, in case there’s any need for the child to have any treatments that need to be pre-scheduled while they’re there, or in case of emergency. However, if the child needs any specific medical equipment, we’ll have that waiting for them in the room.
When people see a child who’s very ill, they tend to stare or ask awkward questions – out of curiosity, compassion, concern or whatever – but at the Village nobody stares. Even if a child doesn’t show the outward manifestations of illness, these kids are so used to being in hospital, seeing other children with, maybe, bald heads or in wheelchairs, so they feel normal for a while again. Just feeling normal is just a great feeling for a family that’s going through so many struggles.
How do you go about fundraising?
We raise about $17m (£14m, €15m) every year to operate the Village. Then there’s an additional $24m (£20m, €22m) in time, tickets and those other things, so it’s pretty expensive and takes a lot of fundraising.
We’re very proud of the fact that our costs are under 7 per cent, so 93.3 cents of every dollar spent goes directly to the mission. We’re considered one of the best charities in the world because of our transparency and our financial accountability. You’re considered good with costs of 25 to 30 per cent, so to be under 7 per cent is pretty impressive.
IAAPA is a wonderful partner of ours, and we raise money especially around the IAAPA Expo in Orlando. We have a golf tournament, a fun run and a motorcycle ride, and a lot of different activities to raise money throughout the trade show. IAAPA just opened their hearts up to us.
We’re able to do what we do because of all of the donations, but also because we rely heavily on volunteers. We fill roughly 1,500 volunteer shifts every week.
Who are the volunteers?
It could be people from the local area or college kids who come down on their breaks. We have a lot of senior citizens, visiting volunteer groups and youth groups. We get volunteers from around the world. We have approximately 170 full and part-time staff, but 1,500 volunteers a week, so it’s predominantly volunteer-driven.
Are there any specific risks or challenges involved in running a resort like this?
There are some things that are unique. Most non-profits don’t have a facility like we do, where we are welcoming families from all over the world and they’re living with us 24/7. The other challenge is that so many of our families do have children who are in wheelchairs or have very specific special needs or who are just very fragile, so we have to be very careful.
The theme park industry wants to provide the perfect guest experience so families will keep coming back. But for us, we try to provide the perfect guest experience because our families can’t come back – it’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Do you look to the industry for ideas about your own operations?
I had a wonderful career at Disney before GKTW, and I learned many things that I was able to bring over. Safety is the number one priority at the Village, as it is in the whole industry, so our rides are inspected to the same standards and as often as any theme park.
The training process is critical for our volunteers, who all have to go through strict background checks. We have new volunteers coming in and operating those attractions every day, where in the corporate world you’d have the same employees operating them, so we have to do training on a daily basis.
When the volunteers arrive, they have to go through an orientation about the Village and how to approach the children, because the circumstances are very different. We want to interact with the families and make them feel welcome, but we also have to be respectful of the fact that you can’t just pick a child up and hug them, because maybe they’ve had surgery or maybe they have a port, for example.
At the Village, you don’t ask what’s wrong with a child. You don’t ask questions, but let the family talk to you if they want to. Volunteers learn how to get down to the child’s level to communicate with them, they learn what’s appropriate and inappropriate behaviour, what language to use, those sorts of things.
Since we’re getting families from all over the world, there are also cultural differences too, so in a very short time we have to make our volunteers aware of all the different challenges they may face.
Did GKTW start as a US-based vision?
We started getting international families right from the beginning because we are partnered with all the different wish-granting organisations. Today we have families from all over the US and 76 countries and we would get them from many more countries if there were wish-granting organisations. We just recently welcomed our very first Portuguese family and that’s because there was not a wish-granting organisation in Portugal before. It would be wonderful if there was a wish-granting partner in every country, but right now that’s not the case.
This experience is really meant for the whole family. Some of these families are falling apart because the siblings get forgotten, often shuttled off to grandparents or babysitters while the attention is focused on the wish child. They don’t get the big Christmas, the vacations, and so this is an opportunity to re-connect the family. We hear over and over from families that they can just enjoy being there. They don’t have to worry about doctor appointments, their next meal or the mortgage. They can just relax.
You must all be very proud of Henri’s legacy?
He has such an incredible story. He has not been as active with GKTW over the past 10 or 15 years and he’s 89 now, but he’s still an inspiration.
When you think about somebody who went through what he went through as a child, you can see that he understands what it’s like to lose your childhood. He was in concentration camps from the age of 13 to 18. Many people come out of that situation feeling really bitter about the world, and rightfully so, I mean, I can’t even imagine the horrors of going through what he went through, or feeling like he was spared for some reason, and I think that’s what his thought has always been.
He made it through such a horrific childhood, he felt there must be something that he needed to do to give back. And that’s been his mission, to give back.
I think Henri was especially involved in children’s charities because he didn’t have his own childhood. It’s his way of making sure that other children will have a childhood. Some of the kids who visit us may not live past childhood – and they don’t have a normal childhood because they’re in hospitals and unable to do things that normal kids do.
How many families have visited since the Village opened?
We’re close to 150,000 families in 30 years, which is pretty amazing. When you put it into perspective, though, roughly 27,000 children are diagnosed with a life threatening illness every year in the US alone. So worldwide, that number is staggering. If half of all children wish to come to visit the theme parks in Central Florida, we should be doing a lot more wishes than we currently are.
It’s a matter of awareness of GKTW and of having more wish-granting organisations.
It must make a huge difference to those kids who do get to go.
The children have such an amazing time. I mentioned the Ice Cream Palace. We serve ice cream from 7.30 in the morning to 9.30 at night, so the kids can have ice cream sundaes or banana splits for breakfast. I just learned this story a few weeks ago, about this little four-year-old girl, who visited the Village. On her return home, a pastor sat with the child and asked whether she had any questions about Heaven.
‘I’ve already been there,’ she said.
He replied: ‘You’ve been to Heaven?’
‘Yes, my whole family and I were there in Heaven,’ the little girl said.
‘You and your family went to Heaven?’ the pastor asked again, confused.
‘Yes, it’s in Florida. And, do you want to know a secret about Heaven? They let you have ice cream for breakfast.’
And so it was in her mind, Give Kids The World is like Heaven on Earth. That gives the parents such a a feeling of peace, that their child isn’t afraid of what lies ahead. I get goose bumps every time I even think about that little girl.