When participating in community service, having a grown man break down in tears in your arms is something you can’t prepare for.
Having known him only 20 minutes, this man opened up about a personal problem few people on this planet could. He explained that his children keep dying – and there is nothing he can do.
We talked for no longer than half an hour, but he told me about how his mental status keeps diminishing due to the last few years. He told how his family used to be six strong, but that the last year and half, he lost three of his children to different types of cancer.
None made it over the age of 5.
The fourth child has cancer too, but has passed the 5-year barrier. He is 7 now, and is “stronger than I ever imagined,” said the father.
During the winter recess, the Rotaract Club from Castleton University traveled to Florida to volunteer for the nonprofit Give Kids The World organization. It partners with Make A Wish Foundation and houses and supplies food and theme parks for families with critical illnesses.
The father, his wife and child were some of the people I met while there. They had been there several times before with their other children and were back. He opened up to me and that was something I never expected, but will continue to cherish.
“I did not know what to expect,” said Shelby Phillips, the group advisor. “When the idea was brought to me, I said cool, let’s give it a try. I never expected to hear all the stories and be there for the families.”
For most of the volunteers, the driving force was to help out because community service was something that they all liked to do. For some, it was a requirement living in North House, but for others, it was a fun get away.
But for one individual working from out west, it was giving back to something they believed in. Daryl Blackburn, a student at Oakland University, was helping the same week Castleton students were.
Blackburn originally came to GKTW in 2003 because he suffered from a brain tumor. He was there with his family staying at the resort and going to all the attractions as part of his Make-A-Wish trip.
When he went to college, he noticed an email pop up for an application asking for volunteers to help out over spring break. Blackburn saw this and applied instantly. He loved the experience when he was there in 2003 and wanted to give back the organization that helped him enjoy what was thought to be the last of his life.
Abby Gray, president of the CU Rotaract Club, said GKTW made families feel like they were normal and that for their time staying, they didn’t have to worry about the future of their sick member.
“It’s definitely cool to see such a big impact you can do within a couple of hours of your time,” she said.
GKTW is a resort that mirrors theme parks like Disney World and Universal Studios. Families are allowed to stay for a week at a time with all expenses paid.
Houses on site are available to the families, meals from their various restaurants are paid for, and day passes to Disney World and Universal Studios are available free of charge.
The volunteer staff helps out with whatever areas need to be covered.
“We volunteered at food service, we cleared tables, ice cream scooping, and we even helped out at different amusement parks around the site,” said Gray.
The attraction cannot be run without the volunteers, which the full-time staff often tells the volunteers. It was up to us to help the families with whatever task or obstacle presented itself.
The experience will never be forgotten. Some of the families I talked to discussed how me made them forget about the hardships in their lives and let them enjoy the moment without having to worry.
Even though the families leaving have a fantastic time, our Rotaract Club left with their own realizations. Many agreed that even though people may seem normal or they look alright from the outside, things internally may not always be what you think.
Liana Weisse, the community chair, left with the appreciation of “how easy we have life compared to other people who have children with an illness.”
Rotaract secretary Abbie Longchamp and Gray both admitted to enjoying serving the children ice cream due to the fact that they get so much excitement from such a simple thing when their lives are the exact opposite.
Longchamp acknowledged that a lot of them smile through their days not knowing what it’ll bring but at GKTW the smiles seemed to be more genuine and not faked as much.
“They’re living a really terrible life and the fact that they’re able to find some sort of happiness is just mesmerizing to me,” Longchamp said.