July 14, 2024
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July 14, 2024
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Mr. Henri Landwirth is a hero to grown-ups around the world because he survived the Shoah.

He is a hero to hundreds of thousands of children too, because thanks to Henri they can eat ice cream for breakfast.

Henri is the founder of the Give Kids The World Village in Orlando, Florida, which allows critically ill children and their families the chance to spend a magical week enjoying everything that the theme park capital has to offer.

In one of those ironic twists of fate, the global pandemic enabled GKTW to open its whimsical 89-acre nonprofit resort to the public in a way that had never before been possible.

Travel and other COVID-related restrictions forced the Village to close for 10 months, delaying the wishes of 6,000 critically ill children. To raise funds for future wish fulfilment, GKTW came up with some bright fundraising ideas—including welcoming the public for a dazzling lights spectacular called “Night of a Million Lights.”

With life now restored to some kind of normality, the “Willy Wonka Meets Hans Christian Andersen” Village is no longer open to the public, but the lights continue to shine at an alternative venue—more of which later.

I was lucky enough to visit the colorful Village during those unusual times and was amazed by the 166 purpose-built storybook villas. I felt like I was in a fairy tale. The musical light show was stunning, and I learned that one of the main highlights for the younger residents was Henri’s Starlite Scoops, a space-themed accessible ice cream parlor offering unlimited ice cream day and night.

False windows inside the parlor offer a glimpse into space, as if guests are dining inside a 30-foot flying saucer. Historic photos and NASA memorabilia—including a space suit, moon rover, and a Give Kids the World flag, which John Glenn took with him on a space shuttle mission—complete the out-of-this-world venue.

Thanks to Henri, the whole set-up means that kids can have ice cream for breakfast—and they do!

The thing about the Give Kids The World Village is that it gives families a respite from the stresses of caring for a child with a critical illness.

The Meles family from Cherry Hill, New Jersey took their 6-year-old son Rafi there for a week recently, and explained just how much it meant to all of them.

Rafi was diagnosed with a rare and life-threatening genetic disease known as XLP1, where the only known cure is a bone marrow transplant that involves spending many weeks in the hospital, followed by a year of isolation at home.

He was invited to GKTW along with his father, Dovi; mother, Dina; and brothers Joey, 4; and Akiva, 2.

Dina explained: “When Rafi was in hospital, the idea of having a wish granted was a real motivator for him. It gave us something positive to talk about that was going to happen in the future, so it would put him in the right frame of mind.

“We knew the Village would be special, but we didn’t realise how special until we pulled in through the gates. Everything is arranged for you, from visits to Disney World, SeaWorld, Universal Studios and Kennedy Space Center, to a private meet-and-greet with Mickey Mouse at the Village.

“A key takeaway is that every child is made to feel special, not just the child who has the illness, so that was great for Joey and Akiva,” Dina continued. “Rafi is not the most animated of our sons, but on the trip he was a real thrill-seeker. He’d never been on a plane and it was his first time in the theme parks, and he pushed himself to go on the scariest thrill rides. Given how much he has been through in his young life, he is not afraid to try anything.”

Rafi’s story could have ended differently, but a combination of faith, medical expertise and parental perseverance have given him a second chance of life.

Rafi’s youngest brother, Akiva, was an exact match to be his bone-marrow donor, and a transplant took place on Simchat Torah.

His father, Dovi, explained: “I am pleased to say that we are past the early complications that can arise, such as graft failure, and it is looking like Rafi is going to be cured of this disease. Of course he will be monitored his whole life for any complications that can result at a later date from a bone marrow transplant.”

On top of their experience, Dina and Dovi have something in common with Henri Landwirth, as they are grandchildren of Auschwitz Holocaust survivors.

Born in Antwerp, Belgium, in 1927, Henri survived five years in Nazi death and labor camps during World War II, including Auschwitz. After immigrating to the U.S. and serving in the army during the Korean War, he began a 50-year career in the hotel industry, rising from bellman to owner.

Most notably, he managed the Starlite Motel in Florida’s Cocoa Beach, which in the 1960s served as the temporary home to the original Mercury Seven astronauts—who became Henri’s lifelong friends. With their support, he created Give Kids The World in 1986 to fulfill his pledge to one day prevent other children from missing out on childhood, as he had. Henri died in 2018.

Since opening, nearly 177,000 critically ill children and their families from 77 countries have been welcomed to GKTW to laugh together, play together and create memories away from hospital stays and medical treatments.

Every child whose wish is fulfilled by GKTW and his or her family receives an all-inclusive stay including transportation; accommodations; donated theme park tickets; all meals and snacks; nightly entertainment; daily gifts; and unique interactive experiences at the Village, featuring an array of wheelchair-accessible rides and attractions.

So, back to the lights. With travel restrictions lifted, the Village is once again full, with more than 200 wish families on-site each week.

That meant the Village could no longer host the lights, so they have a new home: Island H2O Water Park, in Orlando’s Margaritaville area, which generously offered its park as the site of the dazzling display. It too is dazzling, and a great place to enjoy your very own Chanukah lights.

The lights bring together the community for an immersive family holiday experience while ensuring Give Kids the World can fulfil its goal to never let a critically ill child’s wish go unfulfilled.

Henri would be immensely proud.

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