If a nightmare and dream can come together, they do so in Orlando, where 70 percent of sick children’s last wishes are granted.
For many, it’s not a trip that can be postponed or tied up in the planning stage. In fact, it’s the tangle of red tape that caught one man’s attention and led to the founding of Give Kids the World, a non-profit organization that provides cost-free resort accommodations and meals to these children and their families during their stay in central Florida.
A Holocaust survivor who lived in labor camps and concentration camps during World War II, Henri Landwirth (78) recalls the uncertainty of his own childhood, the struggles of living day to day.
Landwirth is Jewish and lived in a ghetto in Krakow, Poland, during the Nazi Regime. Between the ages of 13 and 18, he was shuttled between Nazi death camps and labor camps. His father was killed and buried in a mass grave near Radom. At the end of World War II, Henri was marched into the woods to be shot, but a Nazi soldier spared his life and told him to run. “I never knew what my life would be like,” he says. “Frankly, I didn’t know if I would live.”
Landwirth, originally a native of Belgium, left Europe after the war, arriving in the United States with only US$ 20 in his pocket. Soon after settling into New York, he received what he thought was a welcome letter from the president. It was a draft notice.
He served in the U.S. Army, learning English along the way, and used his GI Bill benefits to take a course in hotel management. He went on to earn a job at a New York hotel, working in every capacity available.
In 1954, he moved to Florida and managed the 100-room Starlite Motel in Cocoa Beach near Cape Canaveral. During these early days of U.S. space exploration, the original Mercury Seven astronauts lived at the Starlite Motel, giving Landwirth the opportunity to build friendships with the astronauts, as well as with network news anchor Walter Cronkite.
During the 1970s, Landwirth founded the Fanny Landwirth Foundation in honor of his mother. The foundation’s work resulted in the construction of a senior citizens center and a school in Orlando. He also created a scholarship program for underprivileged children in Israel. The foundation’s work continues today.
But perhaps Landwirth’s most recognized work is Give Kids the World. In 1986, Landwirth learned of a 6-year-old cancer patient named Amy. Her one wish: to meet Mickey Mouse. Amy died before the travel arrangements were complete.
When Landwirth heard of Amy’s unfulfilled dream, the Holiday Inn executive began knocking on doors, approaching his vast network of colleagues to create Give Kids the World Foundation. It was to be an organization that would slice through planning and paperwork to ensure that children like Amy could visit central Florida in a timely way.
The program began by housing families in Orlando hotels, but the need quickly outgrew the supply. Landwirth searched the Orlando/Kissimmee area and bought a parcel of land surrounded by a burned-out orange grove.
That grove became home to the first villas of Give Kids the World Village, which opened in 1989, only three years after Landwirth launched Give Kids the World. To date, in the middle of its 19th year, the Village has welcomed some 70,000 families. Since its inception, the Village has added more villas, attractions and service buildings, all at a total cost of US$ 60 million.
“The whole Village has been built on handshakes. There were no contracts whatsoever,” Landwirth says. No doubt, the Village could not exist without the help of generous corporations and individuals. Still, no corporate-sponsor signs can be found throughout the Village. The support is quiet and non-evident. “It belongs to the families,” Landwirth says of the property. Administrative costs are low, so 93 cents of every dollar donated goes directly to the Village and to the children it serves.
Streets, buildings and attractions on the property are named for the children who have inspired Landwirth and the Village staff. Marc’s Dinoputt, a miniature golf course created by a Universal Studios design team, is named for a young cancer patient from Nebraska who went on to be named Nebraska’s Cancer Survivor of the Year. Amberville Train Station features a miniature model train inside, remote control boats outside and interactive play throughout.
Spread over 70 acres (.28 km²), Give Kids the World resembles more of a garden home community than a vacation resort. Fully appointed, one-level villas are a home away from home for the families who visit. “The experience here is better than at a hotel,” explains staff member Jack Cudworth. The villas feature two bedrooms and two bathrooms, with kitchens stocked with soft drinks, milk and snacks. Quiet streets link families and guide the way to common areas, where children play together and enjoy the many events planned just for them.
Ninety-six families can be accommodated at any given time, and more space is needed. An expansion of 50 villas is scheduled to be completed within two years. The expansion will allow an additional 3,000 families to visit each year.
The House of Hearts serves as the check-in office and lobby of the Village. Inside the gates, the Claytonburg Park of Dreams provides a wheelchair-accessible pool to young guests and their families, and the Ice Cream Palace serves up treats, even at breakfast.
Julie’s Safari Theatre is home to The Big Surprise stage show, developed by students from Carnegie Mellon University ( Pittsburgh) and featuring Mayor Clayton, a six-foot-tall (1.82 m) rabbit who celebrates his birthday every Saturday night. At bedtime, Mayor Clayton visits the villas and tucks children into their beds.
Breakfast and dinner are served daily in the Gingerbread House, a colorful dining hall where dolls line ceiling-high shelves.
The Castle of Miracles, perhaps the centerpiece of the Village, lets imaginations take over, with a Magic Mirror, a talking wishing well and a Magic Pillow Machine that creates 15,000 unique pillows annually.
The castle also features a teen-inspired room with video games and an arcade. Shelves of toys line the castle walls, and stars on the domed ceiling represent the more than 38,000 children who have visited Give Kids the World. The young guests sign their names to small metallic stars and deposit them into a bin. During the night, the Star Fairy retrieves the stars from the bin and hangs them on the ceiling. The stars remain there as a tribute to the many children who visit Give Kids the World.
The non-denominational chapel offers no religious services, but does provide a quiet spot for families to visit. Stained-glass windows and puffy clouds on the ceiling make for “a magnificent spot for families to come,” Cudworth says.
Taking a break from the daily reminders of a serious illness goes a long way toward healing a family. Cudworth calls it a “rebuilding,” where self-esteem and self-reliance are strengthened and where siblings are brought back into the fold.
For the sick child, such a break may help to “increase their lives by days, weeks, even years,” he says.
Upon physician referral, Give Kids the World expedites the planning of the Orlando dream vacation, coordinating visitor passes to area attractions, and providing local transportation and meals at no cost to families. Some 300 wish-granting organizations work with Give Kids the World to help expedite the planning process for families of sick children.
Children from 50 states and 50 countries outside the United States visit Give Kids the World. Individual volunteers, as well as groups of volunteers, travel to the Village, providing assistance with airport pickup, wrapping and delivering gifts to the villas, tending the grounds and serving families in dozens of ways during their stay. Some help with Parents’ Night Out, a gift to the adult guests who may not have had a date in years. (Give Kids the World provides gift certificates for the couple’s dinner, while volunteers care for the children.) Volunteers number 3,100 throughout the year. A staff of 100 manages the Village on a daily basis.
As a member of the International Amusement Parks Association, Give Kids the World is able to provide a 12-month family pass to theme parks in the family’s region, making the vacation continue after the families return home.
Almost 20 years have passed since he knocked on doors of would-be contributors. In that time, he has earned numerous honors: The Caring Institute named him one of the 12 Most Caring People in America (1988); Parents magazine named him Humanitarian of the Year (1994); The Orlando Sentinel named him Floridian of the Year (1994); and the University of Cincinnati awarded him an Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters (1997). Landwirth’s life and story are detailed in his book, Gift of Life.
Today, Landwirth humbly calls Give Kids the World “something I needed to do.” His years of living in labor camps and concentration camps came at a price, but they also held a mighty reward.
“If I hadn’t gone through that, I wouldn’t be doing this,” Landwirth says. “I was the lucky one.”
If You Go
Give Kids the World