Friday, May 23, 2008

Give Kids the World

During a press trip to Orlando exactly three years ago (Memorial Day weekend 2005), I found myself sitting poolside with Henri Landwirth. If that name doesn't ring a bell, maybe these will: Magic Moments, Make a Wish, Give Kids the World. The following morning, I joined a group that accompanied Landwirth to the Give Kids the World Village, the resort where many of the Magic Moments and Make a Wish families stay during their visit to Orlando.
So, in honor of this three-year anniversary and one of the most memorable interviews I've ever conducted, I thought I would ditch Friday Roundup, the cynicism and the skewed view of the world and give you this, written in 2005 and published in a few magazines...

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 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 recalls the uncertainty of his own childhood, the struggles of living day to day.

Between the ages of 13 and 18, Landwirth was shuttled between Nazi death camps and labor camps. Near the end of World War II, he 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 left Europe after the war, arriving in the United States with only $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 a 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 demand 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 $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, 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 and featuring Mayor Clayton, a six-foot-tall 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 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, 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 Landwirth 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 with 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.”

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

No More Pencils, No More Books ...

What I'm Doing During My Summer Vacation

Day One (written some days ago and filed away because I was in the middle of a rant and was spitting fire and decided I couldn't post this immediately because it would not have been completed in the spirit I had in mind)

Only one day into summer vacation, and I already look a lot like this.

That's right -- treat yourself to a little classic rock by clicking on the underlined "summer vacation" above. It's my gift to you.

I am trying so desperately not to sound like a mother ("You kids! I can't wait until school starts!") and whine about everyone being home and underfoot, but if only there had been a transition. A day or two, perhaps, that would allow us to ease into this lifestyle. A good transition might look like this:

Or perhaps this:

Or this:

About 12 steps from my home office is a screened porch, which I call my "satellite office." I would love to tell you that my satellite office provides a sanctuary for me and my books, my laptop and an adult beverage. I would love to tell you that it is free of allergens and interruptions. That it is the ideal spot to get away from people I love so very much and to complete a growing stack of work that I am: a) so grateful to have; and b) eager to complete and invoice.

But those would be lies. Because the screened porch has doors. And windows. And SCREENS with lots of little holes that amplify every sound within five miles and seem to invite all KINDS of guests, like people I live with. And it has a table where kids like to eat popsicles, ask questions and make unnecessary comments and are apparently struck blind because they don't see that I am trying to accomplish a few tasks. And I think that should be very obvious from the computer screen that sits between us, but as I've said, they've been struck blind, which seems unfair because they already suffer severe bouts with deafness.

My friend Susan insists that once her children hit a certain age--like 5, maybe--they should be involved in something constructive during the summer. A part-time job, a volunteer gig, community service, SOMEthing. They should not sit idle. Summer is not a time to be lazy.

At my house, my kids believe the same thing. About their mother. When one child sees me sitting by myself, she thinks, "This just won't do. She's not DOING anything. I should probably tell her that I think my cold is going away. And that I can breathe through my nose a little more easily than I could just yesterday." Uninvited, she pulls up a chair and continues on about her improved respiration as she eats chicken nuggets, while making the most disgusting sound because she can't completely close her mouth or she'll fall over dead from lack of oxygen. Still, she talks. And talks and talks.

Meanwhile, with very simple instructions to "cut the grass," my son promptly and effectively pulls the crank on the lawnmower with such force that he leaves about three feet of cord dangling across the top of the handle. Hands placed firmly on hips, he slams the porch door AS IF I AM INVISIBLE and not deep in thought and exclaims, "Well, I guess I can't cut the grass."

"Looks that way. Maybe you could do the Weedeating." Type, type, type.

"Nah. I'd better not."

So the conversation goes for way too long. I propose alternate chores. He shoots each one down with a steady and confident stream of objections. Finally he decides the only thing left to do is go inside and practice his Rock Band skills. Until his father gets home. And rocks his world. And not in a good way. The lawnmower can't be fixed (easily or without the aid of a mechanical engineer, apparently) and MY-GOSH-WHY-DOES-THIS-HAPPEN-EVERY-TIME-HE-CUTS-THE-GRASS.

My 16-year-old's alarm clock went off at 8:30 and continued beeping until lunchtime, and I don't know why SHE couldn't hear it -- I could hear it from the mailbox at the end of the driveway. So I gently awoke her (as a loving mother does) by quietly entering her room, whispering her name, then turning on her overhead lights and screaming, "Quit acting like an alcoholic! Get out of the bed and do something with yourself!" I presented her with a list of chores that will take her 12 hours to complete, then I drove my son to the nearest veterinarian's office and made him apply for a volunteer job, preferably one that doesn't involve gasoline and a choke.
And this is how our summer began. No Slip-n-Slide, no lemonade stand, no lazy mornings. So while I still may look like Alice Cooper, I will have a super-clean house and, if I know my son, a lot of free kittens.

Monday, May 19, 2008

You Should Probably Write Your Own Obituary

Well, she WAS resting in peace ... An alert reader pointed out the following obit published recently in our local newspaper. I will not add to this segment in any way, except for this: People, you might consider writing your own obituary. (I have removed all names. Because I'm classy that way.)

On February 14, 2008, I lost my twin sister, (name omitted), to complications from lung cancer and pneumonia. She was 66. For very sad reasons on my part, it has almost been impossible for me to let you know of her passing through this obituary, but I want you to know how much I will always, always love (name omitted) and will miss her for eternity. If one could choose a person to have in their life, from conception forward, they would choose someone like (name omitted). No one could exacerbate me like her - on the other hand, no one could make me laugh so much just by being herself. She was kind, feisty and loving and she danced to a different drummer than most of us. I wanted to include the attached picture to show (name omitted) the way I remember her. My life will never, ever be as bright again without her here on Earth, and Heaven will never be the same with her there. She and I used to say we hope we won't be bored in Heaven, just floating around and playing a harp, so I know God has allowed her to be a guardian angel to her precious little (name omitted). I know she is in Paradise because she had quite a lot of sadness here, but she was a Christian and knew Jesus to be her Lord and Savior and the Son of God. On the other hand, (name omitted) lived life to the fullest of her capacity. She did not marry well, but she was given two precious children she dearly loved - (names omitted), of Montgomery, Alabama and (names omitted) of Rockford, and they, in turn, gave (name omitted) her precious little granddaughter, whom she adored. Due to circumstances beyond her control and due to choices she made in life, (name omitted) was unable to be physically close to the family she made; however, she loved them without boundaries. (Name omitted) is the daughter of the late (name omitted), the sister of the late (name omitted) and the late (name omitted) and me, (name omitted), all of Birmingham She is also survived by nieces and nephews and sweet friends.