The moment the Smith family stepped into Charlotte Douglas Airport, they were greeted by Elsa and Anna. The attention of the “Frozen” characters let the family know they were just on the first step of a dream vacation they never thought they would have.
The Fort Mill family enjoyed the once in-a-lifetime trip to Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla., earlier this fall thanks to Ace & TJ’s Grin Kids, a Charlotte-based charity that sponsors all-expense paid trips to the Florida theme park for disabled and/or terminally ill children ages 5 to 12 years old and their families.
“It just blew us away,” said Sarah Smith, who learned last summer they were one of 38 families chosen for the five-day trip.
When Elijah, 8, was born, he ended up in the NICU due to complications during delivery, Smith said. It was there that doctors discovered he has Hypoplastic Left Heart Syndrome, a birth defect where the left side of the heart does not develop properly.
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“It was basically nonexistent,” she said.
Elijah was transferred to Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, which houses one of the country’s top 10 pediatric cardiac programs. He had his first heart surgery at 3 days old, his second at 3 months and a third at 3 years old, Smith said. Many children with the condition have trouble breathing, feeding and other complications, but Elijah has done well, she said.
“We’ve been incredibly blessed,” Smith said. “He has had a wonderful course and has done well throughout all three of his surgeries.”
Elijah is now doing better, but still has to have regular checkups and is home-schooled because his immune system is compromised, making it risky to be around other kids who might pass along cold germs and the like.
No matter the challenges the family faces, the magic of Disney characters and the smiles on their children’s faces makes everything a little bit better,Smith said. The children enjoyed their first time on a plane after celebrating with all the families gathered at Charlotte-Douglas on the day the trip to Disney began.
“His eyes were as wide as they could be taking all of this in,” said Elijah’s father Preston Smith.
The airport terminal became party central, with face painting, snacks and gifts. Ace and TJ interviewed the children and greeted all of the families and the Charlotte Fire Department saw their plane off with water hoses.
“It was like a carnival in an airport,” Smith said.
Ace and TJ were there each step of the way, helping the families, engaging with the children and leading group activities in the parks, he said.
“It’s not just a charity that has their name on it,” he said. “They are so involved and it was incredible to see.”
After landing in Orlando, the families were taken to their resort by charter buses, led with a police escort.
“We felt like royalty,” Preston Smith said. “It was like the motorcade the president gets.”
Each day, the Grin Kids and their families got to enjoy a group activity then time with their own parents and siblings. Genie passes ensured none of the Grin Kids had to wait in lines, a lifesaver for the Smiths since Elijah cannot regulate his body temperature as well as other kids and has a hard time in extreme heat, Smith said.
“We would not have been able to do it without the Genie pass,” she said. “Every little thing you could think of they took care of for us.”
The children and parents enjoyed gifts throughout the trip, autographs and special visits from Disney characters and time in the park before it opened to the public.
When Ace and TJ first started their Grin Kids charity in 2000, they saw that while many fundraising efforts exist toward cures and treatments, they wanted to fulfill the need of just giving families a break from doctor visits and everyday challenges, said Grin Kids Executive Director Liana Weller.
"They can just enjoy each other," she said. "It's something they would never have the opportunity to do."
Applications are open for the 2017 Ace & TJ Grin Kids Walt Disney World trip to Orlando. For more information or to donate to Grin Kids and support trips to Disney World, visit grinkids.org.