By Jennifer Maciejewski
When Chris Frew heard that Q100 was accepting applications for the 2006 Bert’s Big Adventure trip, he had no plans to apply. After all, the Marietta father of two had been turned down the previous year due to his income level. Though he knew that Tim, his 11-year-old son with cerebral palsy, would love to go to Disney World and that his family’s financial situation had changed, Frew still felt that other families deserved it more. It was only his desire to stop his neighbor’s incessant urging that compelled Frew to reapply.
“I didn’t even tell the boys that I had sent in the application packet until the night that Bert called and told us they were bringing us in for final interviews,” Frew recalled. “When we came out to the radio station, they still hadn’t told us we had gotten picked. They planted the seed of doubt. … I was looking around as we were still going through the selection process and thinking, ‘They probably deserve it more than we do.’ It was a surprise when they announced that everyone at the station had been chosen.”
Bert’s Big Adventure is Born
For Bert Weiss, host of “The Bert Show” on Q100.5 FM, the inspiration to create Bert’s Big Adventure came while he was working at a Dallas-based radio station. Each year, Kidd’s Kids would treat 100 children with chronic or terminal diseases and their families to an all-expenses paid weekend at Walt Disney World. It was such a moving experience for Weiss that he knew he would establish a similar organization as soon as he became the host of his own show.
That opportunity presented itself in 2001 when Weiss came to Atlanta to host “The Bert Show.” Though it took quite a bit of work for Weiss and his wife Stacey to establish the nonprofit organization, their hard work came to fruition with the inaugural Bert’s Big Adventure trip in 2003, during which seven children, whose medical conditions ranged from sickle cell disease and leukemia to retinal cancer and cerebral palsy, and their families spent four unforgettable days at Walt Disney World. This year, 13 children will go on Bert’s Big Adventure, which will take place Feb. 15 to 19.
To qualify, children must be between 5 and 12 years old, have a chronic or terminal medical condition, a financial need, and live in the Q100 listening area. Above all, it must be the child’s first trip to Walt Disney World. “Every single child has a dream to go to Disney World,” Weiss said. “It’s a magical place where families can share miracles together, and you can totally escape.”
“There are so many things that we take for granted when it comes to health,” Weiss continued. “Not only are these children challenged on a daily basis, but so are their families — physically, emotionally and financially. This organization and all of its supporters work to provide an opportunity for everyone to set aside the day-to-day concerns and enjoy time together in one of the most magical places on Earth.”
A First-Class Experience
Going to Disney as part of Bert’s Big Adventure is not your typical experience. For the Weisses, it’s important that the families feel like royalty on the trip, and that they receive VIP treatment from the moment they step foot in the airport. Each family’s assigned staff member provides an extra set of hands throughout the trip, doing everything from schlepping luggage to cutting up the child’s dinner so that the parents can enjoy a hot meal for a change.
The first-class experience continues when they check-in at one of the park’s convenient onsite resorts and dine at Disney World’s restaurants without so much as a peek at the bill. Plus, the families serve as the parade’s grand marshals, and their passes allow them to enter the park before it opens and board rides without waiting in line throughout the day — a tremendous benefit since the children often tire easily.
For Tim Frew, who loves gadgets and equipment, hanging out with the radio crew and seeing how they produce a show was just as much fun as meeting his favorite Disney characters, Buzz Lightyear and Woody from “Toy Story.” And even though the fast rides scared Tim, his brother was able to tag along with some of the other families to take in the adrenaline-pumping attractions.
In addition to the trip, Bert’s Big Adventure sponsors provide the families with other perks that make the experience truly magical, from hundreds of dollars in spending money to digital cameras, complete with extra memory cards and docking stations to print out their photos. The goal is to take away any need for the parents to say “no” during the weekend, whether it’s where they’re going to eat dinner or what toys the kids want to buy. And when they get home, other gifts await, such as gift certificates for free haircuts and massages.
For the Frews, the biggest gift they received from Bert’s Big Adventure was four stress-free days to live as a family. “Everybody thinks [raising a child with disabilities] is a huge burden because they’re on the outside looking in, but for us, it’s not. It’s our life; it’s how we live,” Frew said. “The trip was a long weekend to live the way we do, but with a lot of help and a lot of spoiling.”
The Adventure Continues
Once the families return home, they quickly discover that their “adventure” has only just begun. The Bert’s Big Adventure coordinator keeps the families on an email list from which they receive invitations throughout the year to attend everything from the Easter Egg Hunt at the Governor’s Mansion to tickets to a musical production at the Fox Theatre. In addition, the list allows the families to stay connected with each other and share the joys and tribulations in their lives.
Keeping the gift going, many Atlanta-based organizations often contact the folks at Bert’s Big Adventure to offer their services. For instance, when Larry Dewberry of Assisting the Needs of the Disabled (A.N.D.) read about the inaugural trip, he contacted Lisa Whatley, mother of twin girls with cerebral palsy, to see if the family could use their services. After a site visit, A.N.D. transformed the Whatley’s home to better accommodate the children’s needs, adding a wheelchair-accessible bathroom and shower and taking down a wall between two bedrooms to give the girls enough space to move around.
The generosity of Atlantans never ceases to amaze the Weisses. “When Bert was in Dallas, they really supported the organization, but he never saw anything like what we’ve seen in Atlanta,” Stacey noted, and Weiss agreed, adding, “It’s very rare to be able to go on the radio and say, ‘Hey, we could really use a plane for this trip,’ and have Delta Airlines call that day [to offer to fly the families down for free]. The way that our listeners have really grasped onto these kids and this organization has been unlike anything I’ve seen in other cities.”
While Bert’s Big Adventure does have several corporate sponsors, it’s the small checks from Q100’s listeners that trickle in throughout the year that make these magical weekends possible. Not a week goes by when the Weisses don’t open the mailbox to find a donation, whether from one person or the fundraising efforts of a local business. But its biggest advocates remain the families who have experienced the organization’s generosity firsthand. In fact, many times they are so moved by the kindness of others that they volunteer their time to help the organization. For instance, Frew works to drum up donations at his office while Samia Levy of Decatur, whose 5-year-old son Sheldon went on the 2006 trip, helps out with the organizational side of things.
Though there’s pressure for the trip to get bigger every year, Weiss remains committed to keeping the experience intimate. After all, trying to herd 100 families through Disney World can feel a bit like a cattle call, and if the numbers get too large, then it will make it impossible for Disney to continue offering some of the perks that make the children feel like royalty on the trip, such as seating them in the VIP area at shows or inviting them to serve as the parade’s grand marshals. Plus, keeping the numbers manageable enables Weiss and his staff to develop a relationship with everyone they take on the trip.
“They aren’t just names,” Stacey noted. “Each staff member that goes on Bert’s Big Adventure gets to know every single family personally. I think we get more out of it than the families do. There’s just something about being around them. They’re filled with something that you can’t define. They’re so positive, it’s amazing — this is their life. They don’t complain about it, they just take a hold of it and go with it. It puts your life in perspective. They make you better people.”
(This article originally appeared in the February 2007 issue of Points North magazine)