Nestled in the heart of Kissimmee, Fla., you may find yourself inside a quaint little village — one that is home to a castle tower, whimsical villas, and even a pirate ship. On the outside, this may look like the location of a children’s fantasy novel, but inside is a robust organization dedicated to making family’s dreams come true. The Give Kids the World Village is a non-profit organization dedicated to give children in critical condition the chance to visit the attractions in Central Florida.
As COVID-19 caused the world to come to a halt, Give Kids the World had to temporarily close. On March 18, the Village had to say goodbye to their last family. Pamela Landwirth, president and CEO of Give Kids the World, said with a heavy heart, “Knowing that there are roughly 700 children whose wishes are being postponed every month because of the pandemic is just heart-wrenching.”
Give Kids the World is currently awaiting clearance from their wish-granting partners before continuing on with their mission. “We are only temporarily closed,: added Landwirth. “[…] As soon as we’re all convinced that we can provide a [safe] experience for them, we will reopen.”
Much like many other organizations, Give Kids the World has taken some mighty blows amidst the pandemic. After suffering a massive layoff, the foundation could only keep 29 staff members employed. The mission of making dreams come true has been briefly paused, as the Village continues to prioritize taking care of their assets and making sure that the Village will be “show ready” once it reopens its doors.
In the meantime, however, all hope is not lost. In fact, it appears hope is exactly what Landwirth plans to deliver to the many children whose wishes have been postponed. In the face of these challenging circumstances, Landwirth asked, “How do we keep hope alive? So I said, ‘Why don’t we send them a box of hope!’”
These Boxes of Hope certainly live up to their name, as they contain a colorful variety of Give Kids the World-themed items, such as copies of the board game Candy Land, coloring books, and much more. These care packages came from humble beginnings. Originally, Landwirth sent out postcards reading, “Keep the faith. Your friends at Give Kids the World can’t wait to see you!” This all changed once Landwirth got a scope of the impact these little letters carried.
“I got a note from a mom, whose daughter was sleeping with the postcard,” said Landwirth. The postcard was adorned with Mayor Clayton (the village’s rabbit mascot), so Landwirth and her team decided to send a plush Mayor Clayton and Miss Merry for the child.
The Box Of Hope was immediately a smash hit with both families and the Give Kids the World team. “I wasn’t sure how that was going to be received,” said Landwirth. “I sent out the email, and within two hours I had 150 names. So we sent over 900 boxes to children.”
Outside their Boxes of Hope, the Village is actively engaging in keeping touch with families. This includes writing blog posts, and even participating in Facebook Live events on social media. Give Kids the World is no stranger to making dreams come true, even in the face of impossible circumstances. In fact, that mission statement exists at the very core of their foundation, and the same can be said about Landwirth herself.
Jessica Mueller, the Village’s social & content strategist said “I think one of the most amazing things that I admire about Pam, is that she’s not your typical executive that’s tucked away in an office.You can frequently find her on the Avenue greeting our families and interacting with staff and volunteers. One shift she does every year is she scoops ice cream at Thanksgiving.”
Landwirth’s journey with Give Kids the World started in 1992, and she took over as president in 1995. Under her leadership, the Village has more than doubled in size, from 32 acres to a now 84 acres. She has also overseen massive renovations, including new venues and on-site attractions. More importantly, the volume of volunteers grew exponentially under Landwirth’s command. Volunteer numbers have risen from 421 to over 1,800 per week. Her dedication to the Village’s upkeep serves as an inspiration to her team.
“I’ll never forget the first time I saw [Pam] jump in and join the clean up efforts after one of our events,” Mueller added. “One family left their villa after their nightly party, and Pam came in her high heels and everything. She just grabbed a vacuum and started cleaning alongside her staff. It really struck me with that message that she sends to her staff, that she is willing to work right alongside all of us, to make sure the Village is the best that it can be for our families.”
Landwirth’s tireless dedication to the Village comes from a love to cater and serve the families that visit. Since taking over as president, the number of annual visitors has grown from 3,949 in 1995, to more than 7,600 today.
While the staff and volunteers usually allow families to explore the parks on their own, Landwirth has been invited to several outings to witness the magic happen. “One of my favorites was, there was a young man, he was 16-years-old -— and he wanted to be a host at The Haunted Mansion,” said Landwirth. “That was his lifelong dream. I got to go over with the family, and Disney pulled out all the stops. They brought over makeup artists and wardrobe specialists. They got him all dressed like one of the hosts at The Haunted Mansion. I still get chills thinking about it!”
As Give Kids the World continues to await incoming families through their wish-granting partners, Landwirth and her team have developed an intensive plan to help families navigate through safety guidelines to mitigate the risk of COVID-19.
“We developed a beautiful plan. A ‘re-emergence plan.’ We took our safety protocal plan and met with three pediatric infectious disease doctors at the Nemours [Children’s] Hospital here in Orlando,” said Landwirth.
The re-emergence plan will include taking issues like social distancing and sanitation very seriously. Perhaps one of the most notable changes will come with the family check-in policy. Before the pandemic began, Give Kids the World checked families in on a daily basis; but after meeting with the doctors at Nemours Children’s Hospital, the Village’s current plan will involve checking in families on Mondays and checking them out on Sundays. “That way you’re not introducing new people at all times,” confirmed Landwirth.
As Give Kids the World continues to prepare for their reopening, other theme parks and attractions in Central Florida have already welcomed back guests with open arms and new safety precautions. While the theme park industry continues to build up steam again, Landwirth was more than happy to provide insight as to why the Village is currently awaiting further clearance: “It’s when the wish-granting partners and the theme parks feel like it’s in [the] well-being and the health of the children.”
Many of these theme park safety precautions are brand-new and still being tested. “They’re going to try on their protocols and see how it works,” said Landwirth. “So we have to rely on the wish-granting organizations and what they’re hearing from their medical committees.”
“In Florida, the number [of positive cases] is going up,” Landwirth added. “I think we just need to get a handle on that, and that everyone in the state is practicing social-distancing and wearing masks.”
In the meantime, construction on new projects for the Village is not slowing down anytime soon. Renovations on their pirate ship ‘Serendipity’ are underway, and the Village is excited to invite families to their new ice cream parlor, Henri’s Starlite Scoops, upon re-opening. The new ice cream parlor is adorned with a giant flying saucer on top, and will serve a splurge of ice cream flavors with its very own topping bar.
“This beautiful facility is just sitting there, waiting to serve its first ice cream for breakfast. So that’s going to be a celebration when we are able to reopen!” said Landwirth.
Henri’s Starlite Scoops is named after the Give Kids the World founder, Henri Landwirth, who passed away two years ago. In Henri’s early days, he was a general manager at Starlite Motel in Cape Canaveral, where many of the original NASA astronauts stayed. The parlor is designed to help represent Henri’s life journey and legacy of compassion toward families.
As Give Kids the World continues to await their official reopening, you can learn more about how to donate or volunteer through the organization’s website, GKTW.org