By James Russell
Special to the TJP
For a Wednesday evening at the end of a busy seven-day trip, the 100-plus kids in Dallas/Fort Worth Airport’s Westin Hotel’s banquet hall were full of energy.
While they were getting second and third helpings of all sorts of food, and slurping down tea and soft drinks, the adult supervisors were preparing for the final activity of the trip, the banquet celebrating the kids and their accomplishments.
The more than 200 support staff — including doctors, nurses, and other medical and safety professionals accompanying the kids at the annual summer camp adventure — were there via Kids of Courage, a New York-based organization dedicated to creating memorable adventures for kids with various life-threatening and life-shortening illnesses.
“The banquet night is a celebration,” said Dr. Stuart Ditchek, co-founder of the organization. “Despite the physical or emotional challenges they don’t focus on the negative (during the banquet). They speak positively about the organization and themselves.”
Ditchek, who also serves as Kids of Courage’s medical director, founded the all-volunteer organization with Howie Kafka, a paramedic, in 2008. Both saw a need for an organization like theirs. Various associations dedicated to people living with debilitating diseases, such as the Muscular Dystrophy Association, also run summer camps for kids living with diseases. But Kids of Courage is different. For one, it works with youth. For another, it’s completely volunteer-run.
Ditchek compared Kids of Courage to the Make-A-Wish Foundation. Where Make-A-Wish grants a one-time wish for kids with life-threatening diseases, Kids of Courage operates year-round, every day of the year and every hour of the day.
“It’s the Make-A-Wish Foundation on steroids,” Ditchek said.
They also focus on all sorts of kids from common disease groups, whether cerebral palsy, paraplegia or if they are recovering from heart, kidney or liver transplants. Kids of Courage’s volunteers currently serve about 650 families worldwide.
Families usually hear about the organization through physicians or even social media.
In a digital age, many families now find community through Facebook groups. That’s because, in part, kids living with life-threatening and life-shortening illnesses are often confined to their home.
They are often bored and have few options to travel.
Trips, such as the Dallas one, include a combination of meet-and-greets with rabbis and other area Jewish leaders, as well as visits to local tourist destinations. In the course of a week, the “Couragers” visited Texas Motor Speedway and attended a concert and fundraiser featuring the band Eighth Day at AT&T Stadium. A portion of funds raised went to the Assist the Officer Foundation of Dallas, dedicated to assisting families of the fallen Dallas officers murdered in July.
But trips aren’t just a way to have fun, but a way to ease the stigma of their illnesses too.
A variety of programs also help the families remain in touch.
“The relationships among the kids and families are then maintained year-round,” Ditchek said.
What started as quick weekend trips around the New York City area now extend to Florida, California, Massachusetts and Vermont. Every kid can’t make every trip, but they are always guaranteed a spot at some point during the year. If they can’t participate in the annual summer trip, they can attend the annual winter ski trip. They still do weekend trips as well.
Kids of Courage provides more than travel experiences, however.
Research shows when a child faces a life-threatening illness, for instance, their siblings, and even parents, often sacrifice themselves to care for their family members. So they established a buddy program — think Big Brothers, Big Sisters — that befriend the children and their siblings, too.
The trips also give parents a chance to relax without worrying about their kids’ health and safety.
It’s a safety net that allows kids and their families to live confidently, and with courage too.
“If you’re body isn’t healthy, you then fall apart,” Ditchek said.