When I added a day of volunteering to our Orlando vacation — scooping sundaes for families at Give Kids The World, a rainbow-hued getaway for critically ill children — I found bigger thrills than at any theme park.
Stepping into the candy-covered Ice Cream Palace was a dream come true for me. I had seen photos of the sweet spot, decorated with giant scoops of ice cream and a massive banana split across its roof. I, of course, expected the freezer cases packed with creamy frozen treats, too. But nothing prepared me for the rush I got from the bright smiles of my tiny customers as I scooped sundaes — for breakfast.
Although I was visiting the Orlando area, my ice cream fantasy location wasn’t in a theme park, a mall or even a regular food spot; instead, I was spending the morning volunteering at Give Kids The World (GKTW), an 84-acre nonprofit resort in Kissimmee that provides weeklong, cost-free vacations for critically ill children and their families.
Volunteering on Vacation
GKTW’s fairytale-style village runs on volunteer power and donations. I had been donating since I first heard about the organization a few years ago, even setting up a Facebook page for friends to contribute on my birthday. I loved how the Village (as it calls itself) made every day a holiday for the kids who were visiting, and how their families were included in the fun of the trip so that the caregivers could enjoy a vacation, too. However, although I visited Orlando often with my family, I had never volunteered there. Quite honestly, I was afraid that I’d be too emotional if I visited in person; I worried that I wouldn’t know what to say or do when I met these brave kids who were battling illnesses.
Eventually, I had an opportunity to talk with someone who had spent time at GKTW and returns often. She encouraged me to visit and volunteer, promising it would be a joyful experience. “This is not a sad place!” she assured me. Instead, it’s where families step away from their everyday cares, and everything is designed to bring joy. “You will see nothing but smiles,” she promised.
Scooping Up Memories
So, during my most recent visit to Orlando, I signed up for a voluntourism shift at GKTW.org before I headed to the theme parks with my family (volunteers need to be a minimum of 12 years old, so my son didn’t make the cut). I was apprehensive as I made my way to the Village first thing in the morning — volunteer hours start early so that GKTW families can head to the theme parks when they open. But my first steps into the candy colored resort immediately put me at ease.
Every building is whimsically designed and themed: The central Towne Hall features candy cane-striped lollipop pillars and pink walls; a giant red-and-white toadstool shades a carousel; and a My Little Pony sits atop the Rock’n Spa. There’s also a fishing pond, a stable and a railroad, plus parades and holiday celebrations — including a year-round weekly Christmas event. The Village even boasts a mascot, Mayor Clayton, a long-eared, smiling rabbit who hops over to greet new arrivals.
Since I’m an ice cream fan — I make, serve, and eat it in every form — I’d chosen to be a scooper at the Ice Cream Palace. When I arrived, I was given a tour of the freezers, flavors and toppings, and then was ready for my breakfast shift (at GKTW, “it’s never too early for ice cream” is actually their motto!).
My friend was right: I saw nothing but smiles from everyone I met. Every child (and adult) who came for an early morning scoop was happy. Sundae topping choices gave us lots to talk about; I felt a huge thrill giving the hand whipped cream-covered creations to my small customers and watching the joy on their faces as they dug in.
By the end of my shift, I was grinning from ear to ear. It was easily the best morning I’ve spent in Orlando. Being able to donate my time, and not just money, gave me an incredible feeling of satisfaction, and also a newfound appreciation for adding a voluntourism element to my vacations, something I plan to do from now on.
To add a volunteering experience to your next vacation, research opportunities at GivingWay. Check any organization you’re unfamiliar with at Charity Navigator, which grades charities based on financial accountability and transparency (GKTW has earned a perfect four-star rating for 13 consecutive years).