– Give Kids The World Village –
– By Meaghan Branham –
Since it opened nearly 35 years ago, Give Kids The World Village has hosted more than 176,000 critically ill children and their families from around the world. The nonprofit resort provides these families with cost-free weeklong vacations, offering a bit of respite to those fighting unimaginable battles.
Making that many wishes come true takes a team, and at the helm is an incredible force of both compassion and business acumen. Pamela Landwirth, president of Give Kids The World Village since 1995, doesn’t see a conflict between the two.
“Of course, nonprofits have to operate as a business,” she said. “But taking care of business and taking care of hearts are not mutually exclusive. We take care of the hearts of our staff, our volunteers and the children and families we serve.”
Landwirth describes this perspective as like an heirloom passed down from one generation to the next. “I grew up in a house dedicated to service. My father was very successful in business, and later in life he became a minister. We didn’t have traditional Saturdays,” she said with a laugh. “He made sure that weekends were spent giving back to the community.”
When Landwirth got her first job in the service industry at Walt Disney World, her personal mantra clicked right into place with her burgeoning career path. “It just reinforced all those things I learned about what it feels like to help people and make them feel special,” she said, recalling something her dad used to say: “It’s not about you, it’s what you’re put on this earth to do.”
The stars aligned for her to find that purpose, both personally and professionally, when she eventually met and married fellow philanthropist and founder of Give Kids The World, Henri Landwirth. She began her work at the village not long after.
In her time there, Give Kids The World Village has grown from 32 to 89 acres and has added 11 venues. Volunteer numbers have increased from 421 to more than 1,800 per week. Impressively, the number of wishes granted annually has grown from 3,949 in 1995 to more than 8,400 in 2019. Under Landwirth’s leadership, Give Kids The World has forged and cultivated partnerships with Walt Disney World Resort, Universal Orlando Resort, SeaWorld Orlando and other attractions.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Give Kids The World was in a uniquely difficult position. No longer able to host families, and with theme parks shutting down, the village closed its doors. It has been operating with only 17% of its full-time staff and had to bid heart-wrenching goodbyes to families and delay more than 6,000 wishes.
Landwirth recalls a moment of realization in this painful period: “It felt like we were on the defensive, waiting for everything outside our control. But we realized we could take the offensive and do something. It’s not just that we have to keep going, we get to keep going.”
The nonprofit took advantage of this time with its facilities closed to clean and reorganize, purging and donating everything from office supplies to stockpiles of food, resulting in six tons being given to the Second Harvest Food Bank of Central Florida. The village donated the use of its property to other nonprofits, like Jacksonville-based Dreams Come True and the Canine Companions for Independence.
“About 6,000 wishes were postponed, and there will be 8,000 next year in addition,” Landwirth said. “So we were asking ourselves, how do we create hope, create funds and get the word out?” The answer came in the Night of a Million Lights, a walk through the streets of the village illuminated with more than 3.3 million lights donated by Walt Disney World. The display is open to the public through Jan. 3, 2021.
“We made a promise 35 years ago that we would never turn down a child, and we knew we would get back to that,” Landwirth said, citing one of her favorite Abraham Lincoln quotes: “The best way to predict the future is to create it.”
“Of course, nonprofits have to operate as a business, But taking care of business and taking care of hearts are not mutually exclusive. We take care of the hearts of our staff, our volunteers and the children and families we serve.”
— Pamela Landwirth
Photography by Julie Fletcher
As seen in November/December 2020 i4 Business Magazine