Thursday, June 04, 2020

The Hilton Double Tree Hotel at SeaWorld in Orlando was awash with bright orange t-shirts as nearly 500 members of Kids of Courage arrived for the non-profit organization’s annual 9-day summer adventure in August. Kids of Courage participants, better known as “Couragers,” flocked to Florida on nearly 20different flights from 14 states and 4 countries. A charter flight from Newark carried more than 30 oxygen dependent individuals. The flight has been labeled as a literal hospital in the sky.

This unique organization was founded in 2009 as an all-volunteer program dedicated to improving the lives of children fighting serious and chronic illness. Kids of Courage provides medically-supervised trips to children battling illness at absolutely no cost to the children’s families, and acts as a much-needed respite for the children and parents alike.

“This is the most medically challenging group that we’ve traveled with to date,” said Dr. Stuart Ditchek, Kids of Courage’s co-founder and medical director. “Because of our expertise in traveling with serious illness, it’s essentially easier for us to travel with nearly 150 medically challenged individuals than it is for most parents to travel with just one.”

While in Orlando, K.O.C. adventured to Disney World, SeaWorld, Busch Gardens, Nickelodeon Studios, Universal’s Island of Adventure, and Legoland, among other attractions. Kids of Courage also arranged for an adaptive water sports day. Full quadriplegics who rely on ventilators to help them breathe were able to jet ski safely for the first time in their lives. “It doesn’t matter how serious anybody’s condition might be, everybody was able to participate equally”, said Ari Dobkin, the organization’s program director. “We redefine what it means to live with a serious disability or chronic illness. There are no disabilities in Kids of Courage.” Campers also enjoyed adaptive horseback riding, a wildlife petting zoo, and speedboat rides.

Each camper on the trip was accompanied by at least one counselor. Some campers had assistance from two or even three counselors depending on the severity of their illness. Kids of Courage also brought six doctors, and more than 20 nurses and EMTs. Around 1,200 doses of medications were administered on the road per day -- which according to Kids of Courage is more doses than an average sized children’s hospital. Medical logistics personnel tagged along carrying oxygen tanks and ice-cold water in the parks. Campers and counselors couldn’t walk more than 5 minutes without bumping into someone in an orange t-shirt offering them water. “Every detail is covered,” said counselor Ephraim Liederman, from Cedarhurst, NY. “When we pull up to a park, the logistics team is there waiting with wheelchairs and any other supplies we may need.”

How does the group do it? “Working out the logistics of the trip is a near impossible task”, said K.O.C. Co-Founder and Head Paramedic Howie Kafka. “Every year we’re amazed that a group of volunteers from all walks of life come together and pull off what can only be called a miracle.”

“The organization goes as far as its volunteers take it,” added Dr. Ditchek. “We rely completely on the generosity of good people.”

The trip to Orlando was Kids of Courage’s fifth official summer trip. K.O.C. also runs a wintertime adaptive ski adventure to Vermont, in addition to approximately 30 days worth of activities throughout the year.

“We have something to look forward to all year round”, said Jake Hytken, a camper from San Diego who is battling muscular dystrophy. “Knowing that someone is always by your side makes fighting illness a lot easier to deal with. If not for Kids of Courage, hundreds of thousands of beautiful smiles and memories would not be created. It’s truly a magical organization.”

When asked to sum it up, camper Racheli Herzfeld, from Teaneck, NJ, offered this: “Kids of Courage makes the impossible possible.”

For more information about Kids of Courage or to make a donation, please visit kidsoc.org. You can follow K.O.C. on your favorite social network at _KidsOfCourage.