01/12/2004 at 01:00 AM EST
Close your eyes and picture a child's idea of heaven. There'd be free ice cream and Christmas every week, a place for puppet shows and pool parties—maybe even a ginger-bread house so big you could actually walk inside. As it happens, that's exactly the kind of wonderland thousands of terminally ill kids have found at Give Kids the World Village, a resort that caters to their needs—free of charge—in Kissimmee, Fla. "It has a water park, a castle and even a train station," says Colin Albo, 9, who has a rare form of scoliosis that causes his spine to curve dangerously close to his heart and lungs. "I get a little overexcited when I talk about it."
So would you if your life consisted, like Colin's, of endless shuffling between doctors' appointments and operations. But perhaps what's more of a surprise is the man who has made the unique resort possible: 76-year-old self-made millionaire Henri Landwirth, whose own dark childhood during the Holocaust haunts him to this day. "This is my therapy," says Landwirth, who created Give Kids the World 17 years ago and recently won the 2004 Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter Award for humanitarian contributions to the health of humankind. "I see myself in those children's faces. I did not have control over my life at all, and they don't have any over theirs either."
At Landwirth's 51-acre fantasy village, though, sick kids and their families can at least forget their worries for a week or so. So far, Landwirth has hosted more than 60,000 of them at the village's 96 brightly painted cottages, often providing plane tickets, rental cars and admission to central Florida's nearby theme parks, all for free. "It's a dream place," says Brad Holman of Fort Atkinson, Wis., the father of two children who have died of a neurological disorder known as Batten disease. When Holman's daughter Amber, then 6, had to go into intensive care during a visit in 1993, Landwirth offered the family use of a private jet and arranged for Mickey Mouse to visit Amber in the hospital. He eventually named a new area of the village Amberville in her honor and the cafeteria after her brother Travis, 7, who had died in March 1993. "Henri," says Holman, 42, "is an angel who moves around on earth."
Landwirth, who made his money in the hotel industry, says he hatched the idea for Give Kids the World after a family canceled their reservation at the Holiday Inn he owned near Walt Disney World in 1986. Their 6-year-old daughter, whose last wish had been to meet Mickey Mouse, died before she could get there. The first year, Landwirth arranged for 329 families to be put up in local hotels and in 1989 began building his own village, where many families stay on make-a-wish trips to Walt Disney World and other parks. Today the resort operates with a staff of 90 and a hefty financial endowment sure to keep it open for years to come.
Landwirth is the first to admit his compassion for the young is his way of battling the demons of his past. Born in Belgium, he was 12 when World War II broke out. His father, Max, a traveling salesman, was put in prison and shot while Henri, his twin sister, Margot, and their mother, Fanny, were taken to concentration camps. "I was B4343, that was my name," Landwirth says, displaying the tattoo the Nazis put on his arm. After five years of staving off starvation and disease in the camps, he was dragged in front of a firing squad days before the war was to end. But his would-be executioners inexplicably lowered their rifles and told him to run. "I was supposed to die," says Landwirth, who regards his life from that day on as a "miracle." Margot survived the war too, but Fanny had been killed a few weeks earlier.
After suffering several nervous breakdowns that he blames on his wartime experiences, Landwirth emigrated to America in 1950 with $20 to his name. He was drafted into the Army and eventually settled in Florida, where he befriended astronauts working at Cape Canaveral, including John Glenn, who became his business partner and a godfather to one of Landwirth's three now-grown children. As his hotel business flourished, Landwirth helped build a senior citizen center and a transportation program for the disabled. But it's at the village that Landwirth—who recently wed his fourth wife, Linda, 50, an accountant—says that he feels he can do the most good, while chasing away the shadows of the past. "You've got to give of yourself. Not money, but the essence of yourself," he says. "That is what makes life meaningful."
Susan Horsburgh. Kristin Harmel in Kissimmee