Special kids go on a big Disney adventure

Kiki Troutman, 5, gets a kiss from her mother, Teneaski, while her brother Keon smiles as families gather at the Hilton Atlanta Airport the night before heading to Disney World for 2020 Bert’s Big Adventure. Photo by Phil Skinner

Sam Van Winkle may have been destined to see Disney World. What else would explain why his first word was “Mickey,” not “Mommy” or “Daddy?

Keonya “Kiki” Troutman and her brother, Keon, were so excited when they learned in December that they were Disney-bound they stayed up until 1 a.m. Neither could rest until they were packed and ready to go, even though the trip wasn’t until mid-February.

Sam, 9, of Cumming, and Kiki, 5, of Decatur, are among 230-plus youngsters who have taken a once-in-a-lifetime, all-expenses-paid trip with their families to Disney World, compliments of The Bert Show, Q99.7-FM’s nationally syndicated morning talk show.

The trip Sam and Kiki made late last month marked the 18th for show host Bert Weiss.

He patterned his annual Disney trip after one created by a Dallas, Texas, radio station where he worked previously. Weiss came to Atlanta in 2000, vowing to do the same for chronically and terminally ill children, if he ever had the opportunity. Two years later, he created the nonprofit Bert’s Big Adventure.

Children, ages 5 to 12, are eligible for the trip, which now costs an average of $16,000 per family and includes the royal treatment – transportation, food, lodging and even boarding a family’s pet, if need be.

Most of the trip winners are from metro Atlanta, including 10 of the 13 families who made the latest trip. The rest are nominated by listeners to The Bert Show in 25 other radio markets around the country.

The size of the group is intentionally kept small to create a more intimate family atmosphere, Weiss said. The families have the phone numbers of the radio show’s staff and the other winners, and the bond they form on the trip extends through the years through regular reunions organized by the staff of Bert’s Big Adventure and The Bert Show cast.

Weiss personally interviews the finalists, sometimes more than once. But he said he leaves the final decision on who goes to medical professionals.

Applicants must meet certain criteria. They must live in one of The Bert Show’s listening areas, demonstrate a financial need, have a chronic or terminal illness, and have never visited Disney World.

Bethany and George Van Winkle, Sam’s parents, had been saving for a family trip to Disney World when Bethany was diagnosed with breast cancer last year. She’s doing well now, but the extra money the family had set aside for the trip was needed to make up for lost income when both parents had to take off from work during her treatment, Van Winkle said.

Sam has Down syndrome and was born with the complex heart abnormality Tetralogy of Fallot, which has required him to have two open-heart surgeries. He’s likely to face a third major heart surgery again in his teen years, his mother said.

The Van Winkles weren’t confident that Sam would be able to learn to speak and taught him sign language. But he was unstoppable, and the first word out of his mouth was “Mickey,” for a certain celebrated mouse, his parents said.

Mickey Mouse and Woody from “Toy Story” have always had his heart, his mother said.

Travel in the special-needs community can be stressful. But staff members of The Bert Show think of everything, bringing along doctors and nurses and even photographers who volunteer to do the picture-snapping, Bethany Van Winkle said.

“It’s incredible – the kindness, the amount of volunteers, the planning …,” she said.

Kiki was thrilled to share the Disney experience with brother Keon, 11. The two have been inseparable through “the roller coaster ride” of leukemia that began when Kiki was 1, their mother, Teneaski Troutman said.

Kiki has been in remission since early 2019 and was most excited to be at Disney World with the princesses.

“She likes to call herself a princess,” her mother said.

Weiss said the trip started out as an escape for the children and families from the realities of serious illness. But as the years have gone on, it’s become more of a launching point for people with similar life challenges to connect.

“It’s really become about building a family,” Weiss said.

It’s also affected his life.

“Every single day, I feel like I have a good perspective on what a problem is and what an inconvenience is,” he said. “Having a sick kid, that’s a real problem. Getting stuck in Atlanta traffic, that’s an inconvenience.”

WHAT INSPIRED BERT WEISS TO CREATE BERT’S BIG ADVENTURE?

The nationally syndicated Kid Kraddick show based in Dallas hosted trips for chronically and terminally ill children.

“When I was on his show for two years, I thought, if I ever get a hosting opportunity, this is really something I really wanted to bring to my community,” Weiss said.

Something Weiss has gotten out of it: "I think what this trip has really made me realize is that spending family time together is way more of a present than actual presents."

Beyond Disney: The children and families selected to be part of the Disney trip are supported year-round through reunions, the Fairy Godparent volunteer program and additional charitable services.

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