What would be your top destination to visit before your life is over? If you were a child with a life-threatening illness, you might choose central Florida, with its profusion of theme and water parks like Walt Disney World, Sea World, Busch Gardens, Legoland, Universal Studios and many more. More than 7,000 kids each year who are eligible for a wish through organizations like the Make a Wish Foundation—choose to go there.
Field Support Engineer Tim McGue, who has spent many VTO weeks working with the St. Louis chapter of the Make a Wish Foundation, found that the rave reviews “wish children” brought back from their trips weren’t so much about the big theme parks, but centered on a place nearby called Give Kids the World (GKTW). Curious to learn more, Tim decided to “experience the magic” himself by volunteering for a week at GKTW in 2015.
What he discovered at GKTW now helps him make many wishes come true—those of the sick children he volunteers with—and those of the NetApp customers whose crises he handles.
A Place of Caring
Nestled among huge, bustling, central Florida theme parks, the non-profit GKTW partners with both the nearby parks and wish-granting organizations and was built specifically for families with “wish children.” The 79-acre property includes a fantasy village that hosts almost 8,000 families a year from all over the world—for free. With fully-furnished villas, complimentary breakfasts and dinners and daily activities and ongoing entertainment at its 19 venues, GKTW also provides free transportation and donated tickets to nearby theme parks.
To serve the needs of thousands of wish families, the non-profit relies on the help of hundreds of volunteers each week, whether for entertainment-related activities—like keeping its pony and carousel rides and pond fishing going—or for its essential guest services—from running the dishwasher in the kitchen to driving a children’s “train.” For children who may be too tired and sick to stay at the big theme parks all day, GKTW puts on a nightly party and parade staffed by the volunteers—including a Winter Wonderland with Santa and gifts and a Halloween event, no matter the season, once a week.
GKTW is a unique setting that wish children love and one that offers their entire family a respite, surrounded by families like theirs and non-judgmental volunteers—with no jarring intrusions from the outside world. Tim’s own epiphany moment about how special GKTW is occurred when he was wiping down a family’s lunch table.
“As I was cleaning up, the mom told me how rare and wonderful it was to just sit down for a meal with her entire family present—in a relaxed setting where people accepted their wish kid for who he was, rather than staring at him or doing weird things,” he says. “Then I realized why this was such a memorable place for the wish children from St. Louis.”
Disney, Universal Studios and SeaWorld, all platinum sponsors of GKTW, have also responded to the unique needs of GKTW guests. Instead of requiring the children who want to see characters like Mickey and Minnie Mouse from Disney or the Incredible Hulk from Universal to travel to their parks, the companies bring these magical characters to them. Every day, some of them stroll around the GKTW grounds, where they are able to spend more time with wish families in a more restful setting. When wish children and their families do visit the parks, a special GKTW pass gives them immediate access to rides that normally have long waiting lines and admits them to special break stations.
A Compassionate Team of Peers
Tim had such a great experience as a first-time volunteer that he decided not only to bring friends and family—but also NetApp colleagues—for his return trip in 2016. Tim, his wife and mother-in-law, a fellow Make-A-Wish sponsor from St. Louis, NetApp’s National Technical Partner Manager Jerry Eagen and his wife, along with Sales Representative Sandy Wallace, all rented a house together, close by GKTW.
“I got to know Jerry when I was a NetApp customer years ago, before I became an employee,” says Tim. “In St. Louis he’s fostered a feeling among us of intentional caring for one another, and that’s really the heart of our culture. We’re fortunate in the St. Louis office to be surrounded by lots of compassionate, caring people.”
Jerry simply says, “I had to go when Tim asked.”
After their GKTW shifts, Tim, Jerry and Sandy would hang out at the rental house’s pool, talking about family, hobbies and their volunteer experiences that day.
“We’re always so busy at work but this allowed me time to just relax and spend time with two of my favorite people at NetApp,” says Jerry. “It was awesome and made me realize just how special Tim and Sandy truly are.”
“It was pretty neat, and I don’t get that opportunity a lot,” says Tim. “A lot of the team-building happens on weekend nights. In my field support role, when something goes wrong, I hop in a car or a plane and go wherever that is, frequently over the weekends, so I wind up missing many of those.”
He is returning to GKTW September 3-10, 2017 and has invited any NetApp employee to sign up to volunteer with him.
A New Perspective at Work
Tim says he has reflected on what he has learned at GKTW. His volunteer work with wish families has taught him that everyone suffers in some way, although it may not always be visible. As a volunteer, he strives to make the 168 families who stay there each week feel cared for—and he brings that sense of caring to his support work at NetApp.
“As engineers, we want everything about problem solving to be logical, but when a customer is having their boss jump down their throat and is facing multiple things going wrong, all they need is somebody to say, ‘Hey, I’m here for you, I care about you, and I’m ready to make this thing right’,” says Tim. “That’s a new approach for me; I’m trying to bring that compassion to the world of support.”
“GKTW has changed me a bit,” he says.