70: Giving Kids the World

70: Giving Kids the World

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Spirit of America

Giving Kids the World

How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.

~Anne Frank

The call that changed my life was ostensibly about tennis. A friend needed a fourth for a game at Bay Hill Club near Orlando, and she invited me to join her. I was exhausted — I’d just returned from a months-long assignment in Paris for the Walt Disney Co. but my friend was in a bind.

So when she assured me she wasn’t trying to set me up, I agreed to play. It turned out to be one of the most important decisions I ever made.

Now I should tell you that I firmly believe that if you keep an open heart and an open mind, everything happens for a reason. And it’s clear to me today that each step I had taken up to that point in my life was preparing me for the journey I was destined to make.

You see on that warm, summer morning, I met a force of nature named Henri Landwirth. During the match, Henri teased me. He taunted me. He could be frustrating, but he couldn’t be ignored. When the game was over, I was intrigued but not entirely sure what to think of him.

The next day Henri, a Central Florida hotelier, called me. Soon, we were meeting for lunch. Within a year, we were married.

By the time we’d met, Henri had lived an incredible life. He had grown up in Belgium with his parents and twin sister Margot. He had a happy childhood, but it was cut short by the horrors of the Holocaust.

When the Nazis came to power, Henri and his family, who were Jewish, were rounded up by soldiers. His father was killed almost immediately, and the rest of the family taken to concentration camps. Henri spent his teen years there, separated from his mother and sister. When the war finally ended, Henri learned his mother had been killed. Miraculously, his sister survived, and Henri found her living in Poland.

Hearing his stories was overwhelming. I’d been a history major in college and thought I knew about World War II. But the facts and figures were dry and clinical and couldn’t compare to Henri’s vivid first-hand accounts. The atrocities became real — as real and dehumanizing as the prisoner ID, “B3434,” tattooed on Henri’s forearm.

I was dumbfounded by Henri’s life story, but what impressed me most was how he’d responded to the experience. He would never forget the brutality he saw, but he would not let it defeat him. After the war, Henri made his way to America — with virtually nothing — and, after serving in the Army, became a successful businessman.

He ran and later owned a collection of hotels in and around Central Florida. Through his industry connections, he met and forged friendships with people like Senator John Glenn, Art Buchwald and Walter Cronkite. By any measure, this smart, hard-working Belgian immigrant epitomized the American Dream.

But for Henri, financial success meant little if you didn’t use it to help others. And so, at an age when some business owners might have been contemplating retirement, Henri founded a charity to serve children with life-threatening illnesses and their families.

It was called Give Kids The World, and its premise was simple: If a child with a life-threatening illness had a wish to visit Central Florida and its world-famous theme parks, Give Kids The World would provide accommodations, meals, local transportation, and just about anything else the family needed. Its goal was to give these families the vacation of a lifetime — all at no cost.

Henri created Give Kids The World after hearing the story of a little girl named Amy. She had leukemia and wanted more than anything to meet Mickey Mouse. A wish-granting organization began making plans to send her to one of Henri’s hotels — he often hosted wish kids — but before the arrangements were complete, Amy’s time ran out.

When Henri learned what had happened, he was beside himself. It all seemed so unfair, so unnecessary. So he made a vow to children with life-threatening illnesses everywhere. Never again would a child’s wish go unfulfilled because of scheduling constraints. Never again would time simply run out.

“Though I never knew her,” Henri later wrote, “Amy’s death became the catalyst for building Give Kids The World….”

Henri often told me he saw himself in the eyes of children like Amy. He knew what it was like to lose all hope, to see your happiness stolen. From the terror of his own childhood came the empathy to help children facing their own nightmares.

After seeing the impact Give Kids The World had on families, I knew instantly I wanted to be part of it. So in 1993, I left the Walt Disney Company to help run Give Kids The World.

Working side-by-side with Henri, our life revolved around the Village. I watched in amazement his endless determination and laser focus.

We spent every waking moment strategizing and building relationships. Every expense was scrutinized — right down to the Post-It notes — to ensure as many resources as possible could be channeled into services for our guest families.

As we worked, the Village grew. We added villas and attractions. Thousands of families came to visit us each year. Our goal remained the same — to create the happiness that inspires hope.

The Village and its mission came to define me, and I absorbed everything I could, knowing eventually I would be entrusted with carrying on Henri’s legacy. It was a daunting realization, so I asked him one day to dictate to me his vision for the future. It would be my roadmap, my north star.

That map turned out to be several pages long, but it boiled down to two things: Never turn a child away, and always do what is best for the children. If we uphold those principles, we will never stray off course.

I have tried to live by those words every day since becoming CEO and president of Give Kids The World in 1995. With the help of countless donors and corporate partners, we have now served more than 144,000 families from all 50 states and 75 countries. Henri stepped back from day-to-day operations several years ago, but he remains intensely committed to and passionate about GKTW’s mission.

In many ways, the success of the Village is a uniquely American story: founded by an immigrant, built with hard work and based on the proposition that there is no higher calling than serving others.

I wake up every day grateful to be part of it — and astonished by how a simple game of tennis shaped my life. If you’re open to what life presents — if you fasten your seatbelt and go along for the ride — you never know where you’ll end up. For me, I’ve found what I was put on earth to do.

~Pamela Landwirth

More stories from our partners