MIAMI (CBSMiami) – For little girls who have lost their curls, the discovery of what appears to be a magical looking glass, makes them smile. At Give Kids the World Village in Orlando, children who have battled cancer, many of whom have undergone chemotherapy, a peek into the mirror reveals a princess wearing a beautiful crown.
The Village is enchanting. Touches like the seemingly-magical mirror plays throughout the storybook village, making children feel like royalty during their stay. The idea is to make them feel like, well, children.
Give Kids The World Village is a non-profit resort where children with life-threatening illnesses and their families are treated to a week-long, cost-free vacation.
“These children have unfortunately lost their childhood,” reflects Pamela Landwirth, President of Give Kids The World Village.
“All of a sudden they are at the mercy of doctors, hospitals and insurance companies, children who should be out playing and experiencing all the joys of childhood are now shuffling between doctors appointments and hospital stays so we want to take them out of that world here and remind them how great it can be to be a kid again,” said Landwirth.
That’s the goal of the village and non-profit project and why is it is a favored destination for wish-giving organizations around the world.
Tucked away, not far from Magic Kingdom and other theme parks, its welcome mat unfolds for children with life threatening diseases, thousands of them each year. Since the village has opened its doors nearly 25 years ago, some 270,000 have visited.
Mark Hoewing, communications specialist for Give Kids The World Village, accompanied CBS4 News Chief Investigator Michele Gillen across the campus to meet dozens of children and families staying in the much appreciated home away from home.
“For the first time in a lot of their lives, they are normal, they are in a situation where no one is staring, everybody is having a good time and really that’s the focus of the week here, to enjoy themselves and to experience things kids should experience, the bond of the family. So it is a magical week. That happiness inspires hope that hopefully will bring them back to health,” said Hoewing.
It was easy for Gillen to see why the village inspires hope for sick children while visiting one group of children.
It was 9 am and despite the dark and rainy day outside, children were dancing the morning away in special breakfast tent. They have journeyed here from Israel, Russia and Sweden. Wheelchairs and crutches are pushed away and for seven days the shoulders of volunteers carry them to innocent heights.
“It’s incredible, its overwhelming joy to see these families and how united they are, how they care for each other like they are each other’s families,” said Joseph Zevuloni, founder of the Florida-based wish granting non-profit Smicha Layeladim—which means “My Wish For You.”
Every year he and his team shepherds children who are battling cancer to the Give Kids the World Village, a destination which serves as 50-percent of the wishes granted by organizations.
“Before these trips the children have very low self-esteem. Our number one job with the volunteers here is to build up their self-esteem. We have children here, girls, who wear wigs every day. They take them off here because they know it’s beautiful and they know their beautiful for who they are because they are surrounded with warmth and love,” Zevuloni said. “That’s what gives them the strength later on.”
The children from his mission journey to the village which was created to help fade memories of hospital rooms. Trees snore, castles roar, and every priority is making children who face life-threatening diseases smile.
“We are all having to take care of a sick child and to be here and to be attentive to a sick child’s needs and wants,” Zevuloni said.
Zarryiea Williams, a Miami mother of twins and her family have moved into one of the 146 family villas which is a blissful respite ahead of up-coming heart surgery scheduled for her youngest daughter.
As her little ones found out, instead of doctor visits, kids here get house visits from the village mayor, which is a bunny who tucks them into bed each night.
“The laughter means so much,” Williams said.
Children wake up early–rain or shine–they can’t wait to get to the theme parks. From Universal to Disney, they have all-access passes. Zevuloni and his team ensures that each little one is treated like a VIP.
The handprint of hope here comes from a very special man—it’s founder Henri Landwirth. He is just turning 87-years-old, but as a boy he was imprisoned in Nazi death camps where his parents were killed. His childhood vanished, but he escaped with a dream to someday help other children.
“He sees himself in the eyes of these children. He cannot get his childhood back and he can do all possible for these children,” said Pamela Landwirth.
Landwirth shared with Gillen that when he became a successful Orlando hotelier, he tried to quickly find lodging for every ill child that wanted to visit Orlando and the theme parks.
Communications specialist Hoewing adds that one time, a little girl didn’t make it in time and passed away before her trip.
“It was taking too long to put together things like tickets, food, hotel and things like that so Henri said this is never going to happen again and if a family needs to come in 24 hours I’m going to make sure this is so,” Hoewing said.
He called every corporate friend to create a solution.
“Actually he said to them at the time I want to give kids the world and that’s where this all came from,” said Hoewing.
Meanwhile, the fuel that keeps this village running is thousands of volunteers. They travel from all over the world and country to donate their time.
Girl Scout troop 374 based in Fairfax Station Virginia spent their school vacation serving breakfast to the children, sweeping floors in the gingerbread house.
“This place is really so special and it’s a secret! And it shouldn’t be a secret,” said Robert Harrington, a volunteer from Coventry, England. He explained how he got hooked the first time, and now he never misses a year.
“This has got to be heaven on earth. Just look around because really there is–that touchiness. There’s so much love in the air I am surprised some of the roofs don’t fly off,” said Harrington.
Zevuloni is in his sixth year of bringing children suffering with pediatric cancer to the village. This year he followed the visit with a stay in Miami so the children could experience all of Florida’s magic. It’s a herculean challenge, but a commitment that grew from his losing his own mom to cancer and wanting to give back to all who helped him.
“When I was 14 years-old, my mom got sick from cancer and a few years later she passed away and we struggled as an immigrant family from Israel that arrived here and the only thing we had to rely on was the community,” Zevuloni said. “As a child it really destroyed our family because our mother kept us together and I promised myself that when I get the opportunity, I will do something,” said Zevuloni. And that something he has certainly accomplished.
Zevuloni said he could never, “no way,” imagine walking away from the work that he does.
All the happiness produces smiles, and perhaps that’s not all…
“We’ve had so many cases where a child will come here and their perspective changes all of a sudden they see hope again for themselves, their attitude changes, they begin to be positive, they want to talk to people, they want to have a good time, they want to dance!,” Hoewing told Gillen.
Before they leave, the children and parents chronicle their stay and write in the village book.
“I love you GKTW,” one child wrote in the book. Another recalls one of the famous guests who often visits, Mickey Mouse. “Dear God, this place is fabu-mouse. It makes me feel good.”
Aside from the hope and inspiration, perhaps the best gift every child receives while visiting is a star named after them and is placed in the Give Kids The World Galaxy. Parents know it will forever remain there and in the hearts of all who loved them.