Abby Gilmore and her mom, Desiree, meet Donald Duck on their Bert's Big Adventure trip to Disney World.

To Disney and beyond: How Bert's Big Adventure helps families build lifelong connections

For any child, a trip to Disney World is an amazing experience to cherish and remember. But for the families helped by Bert's Big Adventure, an Atlanta-based non-profit, it's also a jumping-off point to important connections.

Founded by Bert Weiss, host of The Bert Show, in 2003, Bert's Big Adventures began with a trip for seven children with chronic and terminal illnesses and their families and has grown into an annual trip that includes 12 to 15 families. Bert's has helped over 215 families and their children. The roots of the charity came from Weiss' work on a morning radio show in Dallas. The show sponsored the same type of trip for children and he decided that if he ever had the opportunity to bring something similar to his community, he would.

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That chance came when Weiss got a job in Atlanta hosting The Bert Show. Most of the families who go on the Disney trips are from Atlanta, but they also come from other radio markets where the show is broadcast, such as Charleston and Nashville.

"It's been everything and more that I thought it would be," Weiss said. "We're not in the escape business – we're in the connection business."

Families who have children with special needs can sometimes feel as though they're on an island, he said. On the trips, they can form lasting, close friendships with others who understand what they're going through.

As fun as the Disney trip is, the relationships between the organization and the families and among the familes doesn't end there. "Once you're in the family, you're always in the family," said Desiree Gilmore of Gainesville, whose daughter Abby went on a Bert's Big Adventure trip in 2011. "No one really understands what we're going through except our little family."

The organization holds frequent reunion activities for families who have gone on the trips and many of them stay in touch via social media. Weiss even plays Fortnite online with one of the kids from Indianapolis.

Families also continue to receive support when they're in the hospital through Bert's Fairy Godparent volunteer program. When a child is admitted to a partner hospital, a volunteer visits every day and passes along gifts and necessities.

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When Abby Gilmore was unexpectedly admitted to the hospital about an hour away from home, their fairy godparent made the stressful experience a bit easier.

They bring in outside food, Gilmore said, along with crafts and games for the kids. And because the unexpected hospital admission had forced her to wear the same thing three days in a row, her Fairy Godparent even brought her an outfit.

She said families will also connect with others in the hospital at the same time. "We always find out if there's another child in there and say, hey, I'm in room such-and-such, and I've got snacks or laundry detergent or whatever."

The relationships actually begin to form before the trip to Disney, when families who are going on the trip stay in a hotel together. There's an instant connection as the families mix and mingle and get to know each other, and in the morning, a red carpet is literally rolled out before the group boards a private plane to Disney. People come dressed as Disney characters, the pilot wears Mickey Mouse ears, and the atmosphere is festive as the families are treated like VIPs. A medical staff comes along on the trips to help provide care.

On the trip, the organization continues to go above and beyond, Gilmore said. "These people take you into these arms," she said. Staff stays with families the entire day, and they're incredible in what they do. The children want to be treated as "normal" kids, and that's exactly what Bert's Big Adventure does, she added.

To learn more about Bert's Big Adventure, visit https://bertsbigadventure.org/. If you have a child who will be age 5-12 at the time of the next trip (February 2020) and who has a chronic or terminal illness or is physically challenged, you can apply for your own family to be considered for a trip. You can also nominate another family. The deadline to apply for the next trip is Sept. 10, 2019. To support the organization, you can make a donation, volunteer or help with a fundraising event.

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