LIVE, from Orlando! It’s Spring Break at Give Kids The World!

I’m currently leading a group of college students on a Spring Break trip in Florida.  The students arrived on Friday, March 9th and have already spent a whole weekend here.  However, they haven’t seen a beach, are not partying with teens, and haven’t even ventured into an Orlando theme park.  For this is Alternative Spring Break, and we’re volunteering at Give Kids The World Village helping children and families with life-threatening illnesses enjoy their vacation.  Continue reading for more details on our adventure.

Give Kids The World (GKTW) is the resort where children with life-threatening illnesses stay when they have a wish to go to Walt Disney World, Universal Studios, or SeaWorld.  If they want to meet Ariel, they come to GKTW.  Pet a dolphin? GKTW.  See a rocket, GKTW… this week there are nearly 140 families from all over the world staying in the Village, and it’s our job to help with the daily operations.  The Village fills over 1400 volunteer shifts every week.

In one weekend, we’ve already assisted with horse and pony rides, scooped ice cream, and staffed venues all around the resort such as the pool, carousel, Castle of Miracles, and Amberville Train Station.  Throughout the week we’ll help serve food, provide evening entertainment, and work on service projects wherever we’re needed.

Of course, I’m also still training for the Pittsburgh Marathon, so I had to get my long run in this weekend.  I ran 16 miles (in 1.25 mile loops) around the Village in a steady rain, and dedicated my effort to raise money for GKTW.  When asked if I had a rain plan I thought “I’m running.”  Besides, it could be raining on race day too, but more importantly, I was running for the families in the Village.  They don’t get a break from the chronic illnesses they’ve been dealing with; they don’t get to decide when they can take a day off, so neither would I.  It rained, I ran, and my students came out and joined me for the last 9 miles.  It was one of my most challenging training runs and one of the most rewarding too.  Click here for the next installment of my training efforts for the Pittsburgh Marathon.

It’s certainly not all work at GKTW, and even if it is, most of the work is play.  I’ve been leading this trip for 3 years now, and one of our favorite activities is going to see Yehaa Bob at Disney’s Port Orleans Riverside Resort.  This year our evenings off corresponded with nights Bob didn’t perform.  When I told Bob this, he quickly said, “I’ll come to the Village to perform!”  So Sunday night the WISH families were treated to a command performance of Disney’s Yehaa Bob Jackson right in the Gingerbread House dining hall.  “No one has more fun than us,” and at the end of the show one of the WISH children pulled a flower out of her special box and handed it to Bob.

Follow along on our trip, and I’ll continue to post updates when I can.  However, right now, I need to go get ready for our next shift at the Village – YEHAAAAAA!

Update Monday, March 12:

Afternoon projects included service work around the Village grounds – organizing storage sheds by removing Christmas decorations and moving mattresses.

Tuesday, March 13

We helped serve breakfast to families in the Gingerbread House,

and took a quick spin on the carousel before having the rest of the afternoon off to sun by the pool and play in the parks.

We finished the day soaking in a little Disney atmosphere with a trip to Disney’s Polynesisan Resort to ride the Monorail and watch the Magic Kingdom fireworks show “Wishes” from the beach.  A cheap way to enjoy a little “Disney Magic” on the college student budget.

Wednesday, March 14 (PI Day!)

Back to the Village to work with Neal McCord, Director of Facilities on service projects including, organizing Christmas decorations and cleaning out storage facilities.  We stopped by the “Gallery of Hope” to learn more about the history of the Village, and met Pamela Landwirth, President of Give Kids The World, along the way.  It was a treat for my students to spend a few moments with such a successful leader and role model.

In the evening we returned for the entertainment shifts.  Students painted nails, faces, and airbrushed tattoos in the “La Ti Da” Spa, and another group played with kids during “Kids Night Out” – where parents can drop off their children and have an evening off while their kids prepare performances for the “Village Idol” show that ends the night.

My evening job was to drive the “train” around the Village, pick families up, and drop them off wherever they wanted to go.  My ride was a tug, decorated as a fire truck, that was hand built and donated by four airline mechanics from St. Louis.  The little fire hydrant on the hood squirted water; until I ran out of water after squirting everything in sight (those ducks never had a chance).

Now that we’ve spent so much time in the Village, we’re starting to recognize families, and they recognize us.  They open up and begin to tell their stories, and you get a sense of how much this vacation means to these special families.  One family, from Nova Scotia, traveled on an airplane for the first time, and when they arrived at the Village their children thought it was such a magical place they automatically assumed they were already at Walt Disney World.  At the end of the day, the kids looked at their parents and asked, “can we come back to Disney tomorrow?”  The parents didn’t bother to tell them GKTW was not Disney – it just didn’t matter.

Thursday, March 15

This was our final day volunteering at Give Kids The World.  We met President Pam Landwirth again who made us all laugh noting the students looked like they got some sun but “still looked like a bunch of Yankees!”

Facilities Director Neal McCord put us to work hauling boxes, arranging storage spaces, and sorting through t-shirts donated by Universal Orlando resort (to give to the children).  Note: the snack of chocolate candy bars was devoured in a matter of minutes – don’t get in the way of a group of female college students and their chocolate.

In the evening, our final volunteer shift in the Village was “Winter Wonderland” – the weekly holiday party complete with Christmas decorations, a parade, snow, Santa, and gifts for all the children.  We dressed in Holiday outfits to march in the parade.

Some of the students were fitted in “full fur” on an 80+ degree Florida day (below are our skinny snowmen).

We danced along the Avenue – one of my students happily exclaimed, “I wish I had jingle bells!”  We took photos with many of the families and children we worked (and played) with over the course of the week, and then it was time to say good-bye.

Before leaving, we stopped to reflect a moment in the Chapel.  We remembered the work we had done, the fun we had, and how we hoped we made the day a little brighter for the families in the Village.  They struggle daily battling illness and disease, and we hope our efforts lessened their burden just a little, to give them strength to return home and continue their fight.  Thank you Give Kids The World for a wonderful week – I can’t wait to come back next year with a new crew!

One more day left in Orlando before heading back north to Western New York.  This is our play day to head to the theme parks, and then it’s back home to Geneseo.  For more travel news and features, be sure to follow Adventures by Daddy on twitter and “like” our facebook page too.

About Dave Parfitt

Married, father of two girls, and living in the heart of the Finger Lakes. I'm a runner with a PhD in neuroscience and a passion for travel.