Back in 2012, following the mass shooting that occurred at a spa in Brookfield, Thomas Stark organized a fundraiser to help one of the families affected by that tragedy.
Stark, a Horlick High School senior at the time, sold purple T-shirts with the words “One big city, one big family” on them for $10 each, giving all of the profits to the family of shooting victim Cary Robuck, a Racinian who had relatives at Horlick. He sold more than 7,000 shirts fewer than four hours.
Such success inspired Stark to continue reaching out to those in need, as he did with other projects while still in high school. And his experiences eventually led the Racine native to the job he has today, working at Give Kids the World Village in central Florida.
Give Kids the World Village is an 84-acre, nonprofit resort that provides week-long, cost-free vacations to children with life-threatening illnesses and their families. Founded in 1986 by hotelier Henri Landwirth, it is a whimsical place where kids and their families can leave behind the cares and burdens of dealing with a critical illness, and spend time together having fun.
Children with a critical illness must often deal with a lot of limitations, as they spend their days at hospitals and medical appointments, missing out on activities with their friends and family, said Stark, 23.
“Here, everything is ‘Yes, yes, YES,’” he said. “They can do anything and everything they want. Parents get to see their child acting like a child again.”
Wishes come true
GKTW partners with wish-granting foundations across the country — such as the Make-A-Wish Foundation — as well as community partners, to help make children’s wishes come true while they are vacationing at the village.
While there, guests stay in fully furnished villas and are provided with transportation, tickets to theme parks, meals, daily entertainment and more, free of charge.
“Our goal, quite simply, is to provide everything these deserving families need to make their trip the vacation of a lifetime,” reads the GKTW website.
Since 1986, more than 154,000 children and their families have had their dreams fulfilled at the village. And Stark said that number includes many Wisconsin families, with more than 150 families from Wisconsin having visited this year, so far, alone.
Stark’s job at the village is that of memory market coordinator in the Guest Services department. He helps visiting families preserve their memories of their dream vacation (through photographs and other means) and, in the 11 months he’s worked there, he’s seen a wide range of wishes granted — from meeting Disney princesses and other celebrities, to visiting the Wizarding World of Harry Potter.
Mickey Mouse is a frequent visitor to the GKTW village, as meeting the famous mouse is the most-requested wish, said Stark, who worked at Disney World for several years as an entertainer, and still does seasonal work there.
Not all children, though, have character encounters on their wish lists. One child wished for her mother and stepfather to get married while they were on vacation, Stark said. And another, who wished to be a garbage collector, got to work with real garbage collectors who brought their truck to the village.
Seeing such happiness on the faces of families who are otherwise struggling is what Stark loves most about his job.
“When I see how many families come to stay at our village, it still is amazing to me,” he said. “I just can’t get enough of what we do here.”
Every day at work is fulfilling, said Stark, who faced his own adversity when his father died while Stark was in the sixth grade. He’s always wanted to help people whose lives aren’t as fortunate as his own, he said. And his inspiration for the T-shirt fundraiser he organized came from his understanding of what it is like to lose someone you love.
“I wanted to help those kids to heal,” he said.
Taking fundraising to new heights
Today, Stark is extending his passion for helping others to a new fundraising effort — this one to raise money for GKTW. The nonprofit’s work is funded by donations and fundraising efforts, and Stark is hoping to aid those efforts by rappelling down the side the 32-story Hyatt Regency Hotel in Orlando on Feb. 9.
He’s created a fundraising page at http://support.gktw.org/goto/stark and has already raised more than $3,400 toward his $5,000 goal.
Stark, who admits to being “terrified of heights,” agrees it is a crazy idea, but it’s one he is willing to commit to in order to help make the dreams of critically-ill children come true.
“It’s nothing compared to what the kids at the village have to face,” he said. “Kids and their families are so grateful for what we do. That makes this seem easier.”
In addition to raising money for the cause, Stark said he wants to raise awareness about GKTW and what it does.
“There are a lot of people, even in Orlando, who don’t know we exist,” he said.
For more about GKTW, go to www.gktw.org.