Dream comes true for West Jordan child
Aug 29, 2019 12:31PM
● By Alison Brimley
Eleven-year-old Holland Van Gelder poses with employees at Disney World. (Tiffany Van Gelder)
By Alison Brimley | [email protected]
For his 11th birthday this year, Holland Van Gelder of West Jordan received a gift he’ll never forget.
Along with his mother, 14-year-old and 18-year-old brothers, 13-year-old sister and his grandmother, Holland took a weeklong trip to Florida, where he visited Legoland, Universal Studios, Magic Kingdom and Hollywood Studios. The trip came as a gift from the Sunshine Foundation, a nonprofit organization that makes dreams come true for kids like Holland, who lives with low-functioning autism.
Holland was first nominated for this trip in January 2015. His family then filled out the paperwork to formally apply for their Dream Come True trip. Since then, they’ve been on a waiting list, awaiting donations to help fund their vacation, which finally happened this August.
Once Holland’s trip was funded, staff from the Sunshine Foundation worked with him to help him plan his dream vacation, which included trips to multiple Florida theme parks.
“It’s just something he’s always wanted to do,” Tiffany Van Gelder said. “He wants to meet Donald Duck.”
Unlike other organizations, the Sunshine Foundation doesn’t only grant wishes for children with terminal or life-threatening diagnoses. Instead, foundation officials said they aim to help children “living with life-long chronic illnesses, physical challenges, or the trauma of abuse.” These are conditions that make a vacation difficult or impossible, whether because of practical challenges or financial burdens. Founded in 1976, the organization has helped more than 40,000 children see their dreams come true.
Living with low-functioning autism means that Holland is often overlooked during normal school and extracurricular activities, and there often aren’t services that allow him to participate with other kids his age. Sometimes, it’s a challenge to spend more than a couple of hours at a local park. A week of amusement parks, it seems, could be a challenge for a child who, like many on the autism spectrum, struggles to deal with novel sensory inputs and variations from routine.
Because the Sunshine Foundation caters specifically to kids with needs such as Holland’s, they are prepared for these challenges and help make accommodations for him, which is part of what makes the vacation so special. Throughout the trip, the family was accompanied by an assistant assigned specifically to help Holland. At Legoland, Holland and his family were given a special “Hero Pass” that allowed them to enter rides through the exit gate, skipping the line. For the Van Gelders, perks like this mean they get a chance to experience a vacation with a little less stress.
And besides what they’ve been gifted directly by the Sunshine Foundation, other organizations have stepped up to add extras to Holland’s trip. Disney converted the family’s single-park tickets to park-hopper tickets, allowing them to visit multiple Disney parks. One night, Texas Roadhouse in Orlando treated them to a meal.
During their seven-day trip, the Van Gelders lodged at the Sunshine Foundation’s “Dream Village,” a 22-acre resort in Davenport, Florida, with nine unique cottages and multiple amenities.
“It’s just the most magical place you can think of,” Tiffany Van Gelder said.
Each cottage is fully decorated and themed (the Van Gelders’ is pirate themed). The Dream Village also offers a swimming pool, miniature golf course, video game systems and more. If staying at the Dream Village had been the only part of their vacation, Tiffany said they would have been happy.
And the fact that all the children staying there have special needs of various kinds means some of the stress of staying away from home is mitigated.
“It’s a way to take a break from all the stuff you have to do with a kid who needs services,” Tiffany Van Gelder said.
In Holland’s case, this includes many hours each week of therapy and additional schoolwork, because he needs a lot of help with skills like reading, writing, and basic math.
“When you’re spending 40 hours a week on top of doing school, he needs a break,” Tiffany Van Gelder said. “We need a break. And this is what [the Sunshine Foundation] does. It gives us a chance to just be a family, in a situation where we don’t have to stress that we’re going to be pointed at or looked at or someone’s going to question why we’re doing something.”
In Utah, a handful of families have been on the Sunshine Foundation’s waiting list for years, though their turn hasn’t come yet.
“These kids can’t wait forever,” Tiffany Van Gelder said.
Though their diagnoses may not be life-threatening, for many, there will come a time when a trip like the one Holland was given will no longer be possible.
“For kids with autism, there’s a certain point where it gets harder to take them places,” Tiffany Van Gelder said. “Just because of their behaviors and their size, it prevents them more and more from being out in public.” The fact that she can no longer pick up Holland has already presented extra challenges for them in public places.
Holland had to wait 4 1/2 years for his Dream Come True trip, but the average for kids on the waiting list is more than six years.
“Not a lot of people know about Sunshine Kids,” Tiffany Van Gelder said. “We usually have to wait until it’s just our turn.”
The Sunshine Foundation takes general donations but also accepts donations on behalf of individual families. To see a list of families waiting in Utah or to learn more about the Sunshine Foundation, visit www.sunshinefoundation.com.