A dream come true

The Sunshine Foundation joined local campers for a day of fun at the Dolphin Swim Club

By Samantha Bambino

The Times

Last week, 8-year-old Llairiana Rios experienced an unforgettable vacation at the happiest place on earth. For six days, the Rios family escaped the demands of everyday life to enjoy the magic of Disney World, riding the classic It’s A Small World ride and dining with royalty in Cinderella’s Castle.

A special wish is granted: The Rios family recently returned from a trip to Disney World that was entirely funded by the Sunshine Foundation. The Feasterville-based nonprofit grants all-expense paid “wishes” to children ages 3–18 with chronic illnesses, such as Llairiana (second from right), who suffers from cerebral palsy. SAMANTHA BAMBINO / TIMES PHOTO

While the trip to Florida is a yearly adventure for some families, it was truly a once-in-a-lifetime adventure for Llairiana, who suffers from cerebral palsy. Any extra income her parents Tony and Grisel earn goes toward getting their daughter the medical care she needs. An expensive vacation to Disney is simply out of the question.

This is where the Sunshine Foundation comes in. The Feasterville-based nonprofit grants all-expense paid “wishes” to children ages 3–18 with chronic illnesses, physical challenges and trauma from abuse whose families cannot fulfill their requests due to the financial strain the child’s illness may cause.

On Aug. 23, Llairiana and 13-year-old Errica Ayala from Bristol, who suffers from a chromosome disorder and epilepsy, came together with children from the Lower Southampton Township summer camp for a day of outdoor fun at the Dolphin Swim Club in Feasterville. All of the kids and their families enjoyed barbecued hamburgers and hot dogs, ice cream and swimming in the club’s three large pools.

Several years ago, Sunshine president Kate Sample was approached by Matt Gilbert, director of the township’s Parks and Recreation, to see if she’d like to have some of the foundation’s families attend the swim club’s end-of-summer pool party, and it’s become a yearly tradition ever since.

The Sunshine Foundation was founded by Sample’s late husband Bill in 1976, who at the time was working as a Philadelphia police officer assigned to a local children’s hospital. While there, he encountered many children with dreams of traveling or meeting their heroes, but because of medical costs, it was impossible for the families to make it happen.

Bill knew there had to be a way to help. So, he packed up and moved to Florida to begin building the Dream Village, conveniently located near the place nine out of 10 kids at the hospital wished to go — Disney World. Construction was completed in 1989 with three cottages, and has since expanded to nine. Each cottage has a specific theme, including Snow White, Legos or pirates, and is handicap accessible, including the pools.

Since its creation 40 years ago, the Sunshine Foundation has granted more than 40,000 wishes. While it provides opportunities to children with life-threatening illnesses, it’s the only organization that goes beyond to include autism and trauma from abuse.

“We never differentiate between cancer and epilepsy,” Sample said. “We give dreams to kids who don’t qualify for other organizations.”

The foundation is also the only one with income criteria. According to Sample, she wants to provide opportunities for children whose parents can’t because of copays, medicine and equipment.

“The parent can’t afford to give their child something special,” she said.

Some children ask for a “special wish,” and because of fundraising efforts by volunteers across the country, the foundation is able to make these a reality. Past wishes include a room makeover for a child who was bed-bound, and a meet-and-greet with the Cake Boss himself, Buddy Valastro.

For Llairiana and her parents, a few days away in Disney was just what they needed. Hailing from the city life of Northeast Philadelphia, Tony Rios described the experience as “stress-free.” His daughter, who was born at only 23 weeks and weighed 1 pound, 5 ounces, was more confident throughout the vacation than he’d ever seen her.

“She doesn’t usually talk much, but we could see she wanted to express herself more,” he reflected.

Every morning, she would ask, “Vamos?” which means “are we going?” in Spanish. She couldn’t wait to get out to the parks and her excitement was contagious.

“It was mentally therapeutic,” he said.

Upon arrival, each family is given several hundred dollars for spending money. The Rios family put theirs toward a special dinner in Cinderella’s Castle where they got to dine with the princesses. Llairiana even got a kiss on the hand from Prince Charming. The whole experience was an unforgettable one, and Rios couldn’t express enough gratitude toward the Sunshine Foundation. With his income being the sole support of the household, he explained how they couldn’t have afforded the trip on their own.

The same was true for Errica and her family. According to her mother Carrie, she thoroughly enjoyed the Dream Village, especially the hot tub after she figured out how to work the switch to keep the bubbles going. Errica got to experience the magic of Disney as well as Lego Land, which Carrie described as a perfect fit with the smaller crowds.

Though all good things must come to an end, Sample explained how many of the families create a photo album to preserve the memories made on the trip.

“They get to laugh. They don’t have to worry about doctors,” she said. “It lasts a lifetime.” ••

For information on the Sunshine Foundation or to refer a child, visit sunshinefoundation.org.