Making Dreams Come True
Words by Anna Grace Usery
The magic of Disney evokes a myriad of exciting emotions for enthusiasts both young and old, but the magic isn’t confined there. In fact, it isn’t nearly comparable to the magic happening within the Bert’s Big Adventure organization.
Bert Weiss, host of the nationally syndicated “The Bert Show” and staple on Atlanta’s radio waves, founded the organization in 2002 with his then-wife. Bert’s Big Adventure treats chronically and terminally ill children to an all-expenses-paid week at Disney World with family members in tow. What began as a trip for seven children grew into a 200-plus-children-and-close-family endeavor. Yet the connection doesn’t end after the trip—it’s only amplified through reunion and visitation programs.
“While the five-day journey to Walt Disney World will always be at our core, we have evolved into an organization that focuses on togetherness, not escape,” Bert says.
To qualify for the program, children must be between the ages of five and 12, show financial need, and have never been to Disney World before. The second they arrive at Disney, the children don’t think in terms of illnesses and rare syndromes. They shed the labels and focus on creating lasting bonds and friendships through roller coaster rides, Disney character meet-and-greets, and overall camaraderie and togetherness.
Molly Darby, the executive director for Bert’s Big Adventure, is an integral part of the yearly trip. She assists in making the trip the experience of a lifetime for children and their families, but even she can’t elude the magic of Disney on the trip; she joins in on the fun the second she arrives, too.
She said one of her favorite experiences at Disney happened with 2017 attendee Destiny Strickland. Destiny began life differently than most children. She developed facial deformities early in the womb, which caused her to endure many double takes and bullying from her classmates at school.
“Her mother said she put up a wall and closed herself off to making other connections with the kids,” Molly says. “But she let down that wall to form amazing bonds with all the other kids during the trip; they began to understand each other. For me, that was a long-term impact on Destiny’s life. She can now rely on those kids and their families as her family.”
Molly also said her mother delighted at Destiny exuding such an air of confidence in herself. It was a defining moment for her.
Attendee Nevaeh West made her first Disney appearance on the 2018 trip in February. Her mother Christa said she enjoyed watching Nevaeh take in the allure of Disney—the awe, wonder, and belief in magic.
“What I enjoyed the most was the cohesiveness of the families after only spending a few days together,” Christa says. “Regardless that everyone’s family dynamic was different, their social status different, their child’s diagnosis different, their obstacles and challenges different, and their victories different, we all became one family in those few days.”
Molly said she and everyone else on staff make it their sole purpose to have a great relationship with the children.
“We love giving them an over-the-top experience,” she says. “I also think the real impact is the relationships these families and kids create with each other. Once they’re a part of Bert’s Big Adventure, they’re a part for life.”
When the trip to Disney comes to an end, Bert and volunteers continue to love and support children through the Reunion Adventures and Fairy Godparent programs. Reunions—at restaurants, sporting events, and video arcades—foster continuing camaraderie and support between families. Molly conservatively estimates 400 children and family members attend reunions. The Fairy Godparent volunteer program is sponsored by Carter’s Charitable Foundation and employs vibrant volunteers who visit Bert’s children daily when they are admitted into partner hospitals. Volunteers extend the magic of the organization during trying times.
“We want to know all the kids’ names; we want to know their stories,” Bert says. “We have formed a community now that is really tight with each other, and that’s possible through our reunion and Fairy Godparent program.”
Funding comes mostly from Atlanta and the surrounding Georgia communities. Corporate partners include Jersey Mike’s, Endeavor Air, Audi Atlanta, and Carter’s Charitable Foundation to name a few.