Bert and Stacey Weiss make magic happen for children with chronic and terminal illnesses
Bert Weiss had no idea where to begin. He was in a new city and a new job. But he had a vision to bring joy to children with chronic and terminal illnesses and their families by taking them on a spectacular, all-expense-paid, 5-day trip to Walt Disney World. He had been part of a similar trip when he worked on the support staff of a radio station in Dallas, and he knew that he, along with his wife, Stacey, wanted to try and recreate that amazing experience if he ever had the opportunity to helm his own radio show in another market. When he joined All the Hits Q100 Atlanta (99.7 FM) in 2001 to host The Bert Show each morning, he felt that the time was right to get the ball rolling. So in early 2002, Bert decided to do what he does best: take to the airwaves.
“It was a very new radio station and a brand new morning show, and we didn’t have a lot of listeners at the time,” Bert recalls. “But I was just very honest about it on the air and told the audience that my wife and I wanted to take kids that have chronic and terminal illnesses to Disney World. And we had nothing. We had no money. All we had was an idea. I said, ‘If you could e-mail me today and point me in the right direction, or if you have a nonprofit or know someone in town who might be able to help us out, I would appreciate it.’ And we just got inundated with e-mails. People immediately connected with the idea.”
With the information they needed in hand, Bert and Stacey worked tirelessly to bring Bert’s Big Adventure (BBA) to life through their nonprofit organization, The B&S Foundation Inc. And since its inaugural trip in 2003, BBA has given 85 children and their families the experience of a lifetime. Over the years, Bert and Stacey have managed to put their own spin on the original blueprint they had for the trip, making the annual event more exhilarating than they ever thought possible. From having the families picked up at home by limousine and taking a chartered plane to Orlando (boarded at a private hangar complete with a red carpet sendoff) to ensuring that the participants receive VIP treatment at all of the Disney parks and never have to wait in line, the husband-and-wife team and the BBA staff leave no stone unturned when it comes to creating a truly unforgettable excursion. Bert explains, “We make sure this trip is top-notch the entire way. Disney really is a magical place—its sets the brand of our trip for us, and we follow their lead.” Stacey adds, “We express to the staff that they are to treat these families like rock stars for 5 days. And the staff always steps up.”
While every child nominated to go on the trip truly deserves it, the kids ultimately are chosen based on the nature of their illnesses, as well as on their level of financial need. BBA’s medical staff makes its high recommendations from the more than 100 applications that are received annually, and the selected children find out in December that they are going on the trip, which takes place the third week in February. With one stipulation being that it is each child’s first time in Disney World, it’s quite the event when Bert calls to inform the families during The Bert Show. “When Bert has a mom on the phone and she tells her child that they’re going, the child often won’t believe her,” Stacey muses. “Bert then has to get on the phone and say, ‘Yes, I’m taking you to Disney World.’ It’s just such a dream for them.”
BBA is able to make the dream a reality with the help of Atlanta’s listeners, whose donations, in combination with corporate sponsorships, fund the entire trip. “It’s the listeners that support the trip,” Stacey says. “When people ask me why Bert’s Big Adventure is so successful, I always say, ‘It’s the city of Atlanta.’ I have never seen another city that embraces the organizations and events that are based in that town the way that Atlanta does. It is amazing to me.”
And BBA makes every penny count by adhering to a conscious decision made years ago by Bert and Stacey to keep the trip fairly small, with only 13 to 15 families participating each year, depending upon the number of people who are in each family. This not only makes the dollars stretch farther, but it also creates a very special atmosphere among the families who are chosen to participate. “We try to keep it intimate and really get to know the families,” Bert says. “There is more of a connection with the numbers we have right now.” In fact, many families become good friends during the annual trip, as they understand each other and what they are collectively going through. “On our trip, there’s an immediate connection, and an immediate community is built. The kids know they’re going through the same shared experience outside of Disney World, so when they get there, they’re hanging out with people who are in like circumstances. And there are nothing but smiles.”
There are also a few miracles, like when 6-year-old Devon, suffering from Ataxic Cerebral Palsy, walked for the first time ever during the 2009 trip. “They feel so normal, like every other child,” Stacey says. “When they’re on this trip, they forget that they’re sick, and magic really does happen.”
That applies to the parents, as well. “The moments for me that are the most magical are when I see the parents crying because they see their child laugh all day for five days straight. And they come to me and say, ‘He hasn’t laughed like that in his entire life. He’s never smiled that much in 7 years,’” Stacey says. “I’m a parent, and we have two healthy children. When I watch these parents experience what the rest of us get to all the time, to me that means everything. And I attribute some of Bert and I becoming better parents to what the BBA parents have taught us. Coming home from a trip, I’m always a little bit different of a parent. I feel like I have better perspective because they teach me about being a better parent.”
“Even with as much as we see on this trip, there’s really no way to completely empathize with a family that has a child who is sick all the time,” Bert adds. “The challenges are so severe all the time—it’s just monumental. So for five days, we get to completely take that responsibility off of them.”
However, Bert, Stacey and the BBA team don’t stop there. They want the magic—and the support—to continue long after the families have returned from their trip. So they host three reunion events in Atlanta each year, bringing together the families from every trip. “It’s amazing, the community that has been built from these trips,” Stacey says. “We’ve become this Bert’s Big Adventure community, and the trip has become the catalyst to keep building that community. And now, our mission is to take care of these children and these families for the rest of their lives—to make sure that they have the resources they need, the support they need and the friendship they need when they get back home.” One offshoot of that expanded mission is the new Fairy Godparents Volunteer Program, sponsored by Carter’s Babies & Kids. Oftentimes, BBA’s kids find themselves back in the hospital. When they do, the organization’s volunteers leap into action, setting up schedules so each child receives a daily visit from a fairy godmother or godfather, who brings gifts, necessities, food and more and gives the parents a brief respite from their duties. It’s the type of program that Bert and Stacey didn’t expect to create, but it fills an important need within the BBA family. “We don’t run this organization—it runs us, “ Stacey says. “It tells us what it needs, and then we fill that need. We have allowed it to drive us.”
Bert and Stacey also have allowed their experiences with Bert’s Big Adventure to impact their personal lives, bringing them closer as a married couple as they have brought this incredible ongoing project to fruition. While some may see working together as a challenge, the Weisses never saw it that way. “I was really excited because this trip was something Bert and I had talked about for years,” Stacey says. “And we tend to just jump into things. We’ll let it take us where it takes us, and I wasn’t afraid of this at all.” Bert adds, “Stacey handles business so well that I knew when we got into this together that we were in good hands with each other. I never had any doubt that this would work. This is an extension of my business, and I don’t trust anybody more than my wife. She’s predominantly leading the charge, and I have no doubt that our vision is going to be handled well.”
What’s more, they both knew that BBA would provide them with a tangible way to teach valuable lessons to their own two boys: Hayden, 8, and Hollis, 3. “I think it’s very important to teach your kids a sense of philanthropy,” Bert says. Stacey continues, “It’s always been important for me that my children accept everybody. When they see a child like one of our BBA kids, I want them to go over and be their friend.”
Fortunately, when it comes to BBA’s kids, the awkwardness they feel in school often disappears after they return from their whirlwind trip. According to Bert and Stacey, many of the children completely come out of their shells, getting involved in new activities and trying to do things they never did before—all because they are no longer afraid and don’t feel different anymore. “The trip literally changes their lives,” Stacey says. “It’s just unbelievable.”
It’s a wonderful and unexpected outcome from a trip that began as a vague idea 9 years ago. Now one of the most highly anticipated events of the year in Atlanta, Bert’s Big Adventure has much more in store for its growing community of families, including trips that are bigger and better each and every year. “I’m very proud of what this organization has become and is becoming. Never did we think that it would develop into what it has,” Bert concludes. “And when you donate to Bert’s Big Adventure, you’re donating to much more than just a trip to Disney World. You’re helping to build a community with families that are looking for that kind of outreach and that kind of connection.”
For more information about Bert’s Big Adventure, visit www.bertsbigadventure.org.
To learn more about The Bert Show, visit www.thebertshow.com.
Be sure to listen this February when The Bert Show broadcasts live from Walt Disney World. It’s an incredible chance to get to know the 2011 kids and live the experience of a lifetime with them through the radio. There’s really no better way to spend a morning commute.