Quick! I say college student spring break and what’s the first image that jumps into your mind? Alcohol and partying are the typical stereotypes. Well, not all college students conform to that model. In fact, right now I’m leading a group of 13 students from the State University of New York (SUNY) at Geneseo on a different type of spring break trip to Orlando where they spend their vacation giving back. We’re all volunteering at Give Kids The World Village trying to make wishes come true for children with life-threatening illnesses. Continue reading for more details of our experience at the Village, and to follow along live with our trip. I’ll continue to update over the course of the week.
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, SeaWorld, or anything possibly related to Central Florida. Right now 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 of the resort. The Village needs over 1400 volunteer every week just to keep the place running smoothly.
Everyone flew in from snowbound Rochester, NY on Saturday afternoon (March 16). They stepped off the plane into 80 degree Florida weather, and were whisked directly to GKTW. No time to change into swimsuits and get a tan – we had volunteer shifts to fill right away. We were instantly dispersed throughout the Village to paint fingernails at the La Ti Da Spa, staff the pool, and play with guests in the Amberville train station. Wherever needed, we were there to serve.
It wasn’t until 11:00pm that some of us ate dinner, but there was not one single complaint. After the first long day of travel and volunteering, we were back at the Village promptly at 7:30am Sunday morning to serve breakfast to families in the Gingerbread House dining hall. Remember, these college students have trouble getting to an 8:00am class, and here they were volunteering at 7:30am on their break! As it was St. Patrick’s Day, everyone was decked out for the occasion in whatever green they could find.
After volunteering and interacting with the families, the students were better able to appreciate GKTW’s history and mission on the tour led by Facilities Director Neal McCord.
Neal is a passionate spokesman for the Village and a gifted storyteller. He had many of the students in tears (multiple times) throughout the course of the tour.
One of the special things about GKTW, is that even though we’re working hard, most of the work is play. That includes: playing mini golf on Marc’s Dino Putt,
taking families for train rides,
or passing out candy at the weekly Halloween party.
Our goal is to help the families have fun, relax, and make the most out of their special trip – many times the first vacation they’ve had together as a family. The week is just beginning, and the students are already developing a deep connection to this wonderful place. Keep coming back, and I’ll update this post with our adventures as I can.
I was hoping to keep this report updated every day of the trip, but, frankly, we’ve been so busy working and playing that there has not been much time. Here’s what we’ve been up to since I last checked in.
We were not scheduled until the evening shift at 6:30pm at GKTW, so we had an opportunity to take an excursion in the morning. Too bad there’s nothing to do in the Orlando area, right? A special thanks goes out to LEGOLAND Florida for hosting us for the day and allowing my students to explore the park for the morning and afternoon.
“You had my attention when you said LEGOLAND Water Park,” replied one of the students. We checked out the detailed LEGO models, rode the attractions, and laughed at the entertaining water ski show (how can you not laugh at giant LEGO MiniFigs on water skis?). Everyone went to cool off in the water park while I wandered through the old Cypress Gardens section of the park.
After a tired snooze cruise back to Kissimmee, we headed over to GKTW to deliver pizzas, work at Katie’s Kitchen, and celebrate Mayor Clayton’s birthday. Can you believe we just happened to be here the week of Mayor Clayton’s birthday?!? I know! How magical.
Wednesday was our only full day not working at the Village, and the students used the day to play at Walt Disney World. Many took the opportunity to go to the Magic Kingdom, and we had a special meeting with the head of the entire resort. He must have heard about our service work.
We checked out the New Fantasyland expansion to the park, were transported to France and ate lunch at the Be Our Guest Restaurant, and all embraced our inner 12 year olds. The finale of the night was watching my favorite fireworks show Wishes, which held special meaning to us all as we work to help wishes come true for others.
After spending an entire day at the Magic Kingdom, a tired crew woke up to a brisk and bright morning. Alarms rang early to get to GKTW’s Gingerbread House to serve breakfast to the families.
Mickey Mouse, Belle, Goofy and Pluto were all visiting the Village during the morning.
And I had my own “sweet ride” to transport families (and the students) around the grounds.
After concluding our morning volunteer shifts, President of Give Kids The World, Pam Landwirth joined us for lunch. She told us about her personal journey, challenges of leading the nonprofit, and advice for the students starting out on their careers.
It was a fantastic opportunity for the students to meet a successful professional woman and leader. Before our evening shift at the Village, we had just enough time for some free Walt Disney World entertainment and dinner. First stop, Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge to gaze at zebras, giraffes, and gazelles grazing on the recreated savanna.
Next, an early dinner at the Walt Disney World Dolphin hotel’s The Fountain. When thinking about where to take a group of 13 college students for a celebratory dinner, I thought… “hmmmm, what would be a good dining choice?” When we arrived, I said to everyone, “we’re not eating at one of the fancy, signature restaurants, but this one is known for its ice cream and milkshakes.” As the word milkshake left my mouth, I heard more than one “YES!” from the crowd.
I’m so glad we decided to go to The Fountain, and they couldn’t have been better hosts. The large table set for 14 was waiting for us when we arrived, and our waitress, Angeline, was genuinely excited to serve our group. Angeline was from Haiti, and told us how she trained to volunteer at GKTW with her 16 year old daughter. She had observed so many Americans volunteering in Haiti, and it was important for her and her family to give back to this country as well. After our early dinner, we rushed back to the Village in time for the Winter Wonderland festivities, and the students were just a little excited.
Every Thursday at GKTW is a celebration of Christmas with decorations, a holiday parade, snow on the Avenue, and Santa giving each and every child a present. The evening ends with a dance party in front of the theater, and the courtyard was filled with dancing, smiling kids, families, and volunteers – just a great night…
Just one final day for our GKTW Alternative Break Trip, the week has flown by so quickly, and yet it seems so long ago everyone stepped off the plane dressed in their Western NY winter gear. However, before heading back home, there was some more work to do, and Facilities Director Neal McCord had us working.
Each year, we’ve done service projects around an expansion area of the Village known as “the kennel.” It’s become SUNY Geneseo’s adopted spot at GKTW, and Neal had us making the space more useable. We cleaned, organized, straightened, and painted the storage areas.
We finished painting just in time to go back to our Villa, rinse off, change, and quickly return to GKTW for our final evening shifts at Katie’s Kitchen, the Ice Cream Palace, and the weekly Pirates & Princesses Party. Then, poof… just like that… our week was over.
I heard repeatedly from the students they didn’t want to go home (and it was not just because of the snow), and I was asked more than once about planning an “Alumni Trip” or do two trips/year to GKTW. Something to think about, but for now, I need some time to process and reflect on this experience. Did we make an impact on the families? I don’t know for sure, but I know they made an impact on us. I think one of my students, David Baker, summed it up best with his Facebook status update
Before going on this trip “Give Kids The World” was the name of the organization and the trip we were going on. But now, being down here it means so much. They literally do Give Kids The World. This trip is so amazing.
I want to thank the families visiting Give Kids The World, for letting this group of college students participate in such an important week. I also want to thank all the students for joining me on this journey. I couldn’t have asked for a better group to travel with and work beside. To read more of my student’s perspective of the week, check out this guest post on the GKTW blog.
For more photos from our alternative break trip to Give Kids The World Village, click here or on any of the images in the gallery below.