Christmas is the most cherished holiday for many families. Memories are made while decorating the tree, baking cookies, and unwrapping gifts. While you may find yourself full of yuletide cheer this season, others face the heartbreaking reality of Christmas spent in a pediatric hospital.
Surely, those kiddos deserve a Christmas re-do, right? Well, that’s exactly why Give Kids The World hosts the ultimate Christmas celebration EVERY WEEK for children with life-threatening illnesses. Yes, Santa Claus actually travels from the North Pole to sunny Orlando, Florida weekly for this nonprofit’s Winter Wonderland.
“We want to make up for a lost Christmas or missed birthday party because they weren’t feeling their best,” says Emily Wagner, brand engagement manager for Give Kids The World. The nonprofit aims to deliver a full year’s worth of joyous celebrations and unforgettable family fun within a week’s stay.
Founded in 1989, Give Kids The World is an 84-acre resort with family villas and whimsical playhouses. Guests enjoy a complementary stay, theme park tickets, and tons of onsite amusement, such as a boundless playground, interactive train station, accessible rides and events, and a Winter Wonderland. Each Thursday, Santa arrives to present toys (donated by Hasbro) to every child — “wish kids” and siblings alike.
“Our party includes ‘Reindeer Games,’ where families build igloos, toss toys down the chimney, and other fun activities. They decorate holiday cards and eat Christmas cookies and snow cones,” says Wagner.
Next, comes the holiday dance-off and epic Christmas parade featuring iconic North Pole characters, festive floats adorned with refurbished Toys “R” Us ferris wheel cars, and of course, Mr. and Mrs. Claus.
During the spring of 2009, Christmas came early for Brad and Nichole Loewen. Winter Wonderland was the first and only Christmas celebration 3-year-old Noah spent outside of the hospital and unfortunately, the last the Loewens would share as a family of five. Alongside his two siblings, Noah, who was born with a very rare chromosome condition and cleft lip, delighted in traditional merriment, like sitting on Santa’s lap and singing Christmas carols.
“Winter Wonderland was such a joyful night for our family, and especially Noah’s siblings. It was the first time ever that they had Noah to THANK for something amazing, rather than blame him or his unfortunate medical challenges for missing out on good experiences. It was all a gift because of him,” Brad tells Babble.
Noah passed away shortly after (before actual Christmas Day), but the experience motivated the Loewens to relocate from Canada to Florida to become active volunteers for Give Kids The World.
“We will also always remember the gracious and fun volunteers at Give Kids The World [from] that night and love being there now as volunteers to play that encouraging role for others,” says Brad. “And you never know the trickle effect of something. My whole family enjoys helping others and, aside from volunteering with Give Kids The World, my daughter is delivering Christmas boxes to less fortunate families in downtown Orlando. It all started with that one [Winter Wonderland] night.”
The Winter Wonderland celebration is a Christmas miracle made possible by over 100 volunteers. The nonprofit remarkably schedules 140 staff members and 1,700 volunteer shifts per week.
In the U.S., 27,000 children are diagnosed each year with a life-threatening illness. Half of all children eligible for a “wish” choose to visit Walt Disney World and other Orlando attractions, thus staying at Give Kids The World.
Give Kids The World works as Santa’s helpers all year round, and that makes for “happy holidays” indeed!
If you’re interested in learning more about how you can help Give Kids The World, visit their website.