60: Giving Back to the World

60: Giving Back to the World

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Spirit of America

Giving Back to the World

Dare to reach out your hand into the darkness, to pull another hand into the light.

~Norman B. Rice

Sometimes, the big moments in life don’t go as planned. When I told my family in late 2003 that I was joining the U.S. Army, no one said a word. But their eyes seemed to say, “You’re going to be a soldier? Our Robyn is joining the service?”

Finally, my grandfather broke the silence. “Yes!” he said. “That’s my granddaughter!”

Then my grandmother chimed in: “Well, it’s about time!”

In hindsight, the response from the rest of my family was entirely reasonable. Given everything I’d been through, it was only natural they’d wonder about my decision. They’d spent years worrying about and protecting me — thinking of me as “sweet, little Robyn.” So I’m sure it wasn’t easy to hear I might be putting myself in harm’s way.

But let me back up a bit.

I grew up in a postcard-perfect coastal town in southern Maine. It’s the best-place-ever for kids. Everyone knows each other and everyone is always ready to help. My dad was a teacher and my mom, a trained nurse, stayed home to care for me, my older sister and younger brother.

We were muddling along just fine until I was about four years old. One day my arms and elbows began to mysteriously ache and swell. It went on for a few weeks, so my worried parents hustled me off to the doctor. He ran some tests, didn’t like the results and immediately referred us to a specialist. There were more exams, more tests.

Finally, one of the doctors delivered the news: “Yes,” he said, “it’s cancer. Leukemia.”

I was only four, but I remember it vividly. At some level, I think I even understood what it meant — or could mean.

The next two-and-a half years were a painful blur of medical procedures and hospital visits. While my friends were playing outside and learning to ride bikes, I was dealing with chemotherapy and radiation treatments. I couldn’t keep food down, and my hair fell out. People asked if I was a boy or a girl. I hated that.

I knew I needed the treatments, but that didn’t make it easier.

Then, when I was six, we were contacted by the Make-A-Wish Foundation. I was eligible for a wish, they said, and they wanted to know what mine was. I thought as hard as a six-year-old can and settled on two things: a phone call from Winnie the Pooh and a trip to Walt Disney World for my family.

Well, I got my phone call, and by January 1988 I was headed to Orlando and a place called Give Kids The World.

Give Kids The World is a wonderful organization. A nonprofit resort for kids with life-threatening illnesses, it hosts thousands of families every year, giving them the vacation of a lifetime. It provides them with a place to stay, it feeds them and entertains them. It even supplies complimentary passes to Orlando’s theme parks. And there’s never any cost to visiting families.

Give Kids The World was founded by a hotelier and Holocaust survivor named Henri Landwirth. Landwirth created Give Kids The World for one purpose: to ensure that no child’s wish would ever go unfulfilled.

My time there was both magical and healing. It was an amazing experience filled with laughter and happiness — which, to me, are some of the most powerful medicines on earth. Two months after my visit, my cancer went into remission. I don’t think that was a coincidence.

Fast-forward sixteen years. I’m out of high school and working. I’m healthy, things are going well, but I don’t feel quite right. I want something more. I want to make a difference.

I began to think about the people in my life and I realized that, beside my parents, there were three who I wanted to emulate: my grandparents and Henri Landwirth.

My grandparents, I found out at some point, had provided tremendous financial support to my family during my illness. I’m not sure we would have made it without them. Henri created a magical place for seriously ill children. I’m not sure I would have gotten better without him.

Then I discovered something else they had in common. All three had served in the U.S. military — my grandparents in World War II and Henri during the Korean War. At that moment, I knew I wanted to serve my country, too. It would be my way of giving back to them and to so many people who had helped me along the way.

In February 2004, I joined the Army and began training as a munitions specialist. It was tough, mentally and physically. You have to push yourself. But cancer, strangely, had made me stronger, both mentally and emotionally.

Two years later, I was preparing for a deployment to Afghanistan when I was contacted by a representative from Give Kids The World. The Village was celebrating its twentieth anniversary, he said, and he wanted to know if I would come down and make an appearance.

Henri, he told me, was no longer running the Village, but he’d be there, and they wanted to surprise him with my visit. So, ten days before leaving for Afghanistan, I was back in Orlando to honor a man and organization who had sparked within me a desire to serve.

Backstage, dressed in my fatigues, I thought about what I would say and tried to compose myself. Over the years, I’d occasionally checked in with Henri, but he didn’t know I’d joined the Army. Onstage, they were showing images of my visit from 1988. Then I heard my cue: “This is where she started, and here she is today.”

I stepped onstage to greet an astonished Henri Landwirth. “You gave me the happiness and hope to survive,” I told him. Then we both dissolved into tears.

Less than two weeks later, I was off to Afghanistan for sixteen months. I spent another five years in the military, leaving in December 2011. I’m now working as a mentor to a young man with autism, but I’m considering a return to military service. It’s the best way I can think of to show my gratitude, to make a contribution. It’s not something I would have planned all those years ago, but I honestly wouldn’t change anything I went through. It made me who I am.

~Robyn Rothermel

More stories from our partners