The mixed group of children and adults emerged wearing matching white T-shirts with rainbow-colored graphics, baseball hats and backpacks. They looked like any other organized outing, except that one of the kids was in a wheelchair and another had a plastic brace on his elbow.
Also, all of the nearly two dozen children are battling cancer.
The Larger Than Life group arrived in Los Angeles on Oct. 11 for an all-expenses-paid "West Coast Dream Flight" adventure. The two-week trip from Israel included 22 cancer-stricken Israeli children and 10 supervising adult volunteers -- three of whom were medical professionals -- on a fantasy-fulfilling itinerary: a helicopter tour of Los Angeles, Cirque du Soleil at the Wynn in Las Vegas, Disneyland, Sea World, Venice Beach, bowling and barbecues with local families.
Larger Than Life, or Gdolim Mehachayim in Hebrew, was founded 10 years ago in Israel by a father whose infant son was diagnosed with cancer. The nonprofit's mission is to improve the quality of life for children with cancer living in Israel, irrespective of their religion, race or ethnicity. They embrace hundreds of Jewish, Arab, Druze and Bedouin children and teens in the oncology wards of hospitals across Israel.
Often compared to the U.S.-based Make-A-Wish Foundation, Larger Than Life is actually much broader in scope, explained CEO Lior Shmueli.
"This two-week trip is only the cherry on top of the cream," he said, sitting outside the Universal Studios Hilton after a long day of haunted houses, 4-D "Shrek" movies and Jurassic Park rides. "It's not just by making wishes come true that we help these kids. We go deeper than that."
Gavriel Shapira, an extremely articulate 12-year-old from Mevaseret Zion who bravely led the way through the House of Horrors, begged to go on the stomach-turning Revenge of the Mummy ride twice and eagerly volunteered to participate in a special-effects demonstration.
"I want to be an inventor," he said as he waited in front of the Terminator 2: 3-D attraction. "I want to design electronics. Maybe robots or weapons."
Gavri speaks fluent Hebrew and Russian and is impressive in English. He's clearly a bright kid but modest and subtle about it. He explained the process of turning a penny into a pressed souvenir coin to another kid with pleasure and patience and a complete lack of condescension.
"I spent seven months in the hospital," Gavri said nonchalantly. He had cancer in his elbow and now wears a plastic brace over it. "Compared to others, that's not a long time."
Gavri finished treatment, but many of the children on this Larger Than Life trip still have a tough chemotherapy schedule ahead of them and a few terminally ill children have only several months to live.
Larger Than Life attempts to ease the children's suffering on a daily basis by building bright new recuperation rooms in hospitals, sending patients on family getaways to Eilat, organizing an annual Purim "Train of Smiles" trip from Haifa to Be'er Sheva and funding medications not covered by Israel's socialized health care system. For the drained and troubled parents, Larger Than Life offers support groups, financial assistance for parents who have left their jobs to care for their sick children, as well as short pampering vacations for moms.
Independent of the Israeli government, Larger Than Life relies entirely on the good will and generosity of donors in Israel and the United States. A dedicated and passionate group of volunteers run Larger Than Life's programs and fundraising efforts. All of the directors in Israel are parents of children with cancer, and they use their personal experiences to constantly expand the organization and improve its effectiveness.
Four years ago, L.A. couple Rakefet and Arie Aharon were inspired to throw a fundraising gala for Larger Than Life, after hearing about a friend's 12-year-old daughter who was battling cancer in Israel. The first event raised $50,000 and became the starting point for Larger Than Life: Los Angeles Family.
The fledgling organization so far has drawn most of its financial support from the Israeli community in Los Angeles. Nearly all of the board members are Israeli transplants who have reached out to their own circles of friends for donations, so Larger Than Life has yet to register on the larger American Jewish community's radar. Izek Shlomoff, chairman of the board, said that reaching the larger Jewish population is crucial, especially since the organization's next goal is to fill a $1 million annual gap in the money that is needed to provide Israeli children with the medication they need.
"We're working on a strategy right now, but we certainly need help on that," Shlomoff said.
Larger Than Life: Los Angeles Family says it has succeeded in raising $500,000 annually since its inception. A large chunk of that money is used to bring Israeli children to Los Angeles on the "West Coast Dream Flight."
The kids are selected each year through recommendations from doctors, interviews with Larger Than Life staff and health assessments determining which children are well enough to withstand the high-energy trip and which children should be given priority based on their diagnosis.
When the children arrived in Los Angeles, they didn't have the appearance one might expect of cancer patients -- bald, pale and fragile -- after undergoing chemotherapy. Between rounds of chemotherapy treatments, patients are pumped full of steroids to build up muscle and fat.
"Most of these kids are in between treatments," said Shmueli, who took over as Larger Than Life: Los Angeles Family CEO less than six months ago. "That's why they have hair and some are a little heavy." Almog Suliman, 16, is from Nesher, a small city on the slopes of Mount Carmel, west of Haifa. He's a good-looking teen with a cocky swagger and a tough-cool attitude. Almog was diagnosed with leukemia a year ago and went through eight months of intense chemotherapy.
"I never threw up," he boasted. "I was really strong. It wasn't that hard for me."
When he returns to Israel, Almog is scheduled for a grueling round of 12 treatments of chemotherapy in his brain.
In spite of his bravado, he remains mostly ignorant about his cancer and his treatment.
"I don't want to know," Almog shrugged. "I would rather not know anything."
Each Larger Than Life kid has a different way of dealing with the treatment. Some joke about it, calling each other "ugly cancer patients" in the same playful tone that healthy teenagers would call each other derogatory names. Others make a game out of it.
Sigal Birkenfeld, project manager for the Larger Than Life Israel team, described how during a car ride on the trip the kids started playing a trivia game involving their medications. Someone would throw out the name of a medicine, and the others would have to guess the color of it.
A few have turned to religion for comfort. One Muslim girl from a fairly secular family began wearing a head covering when she was diagnosed with cancer. It served a dual purpose for her -- hiding her bare head and giving her a source of faith and strength. Another boy started wearing a kippah, even though his family was also not particularly religious.
Most remain hopeful, even when kids around them suddenly disappear. They don't ask questions when a friend they made at camp the previous summer doesn't return.
Surprisingly, the group's morale was not affected when Bar Shema, 12, had to be hospitalized on the fourth day of the trip because his blood cell count was dangerously low. He was flown back to Israel for treatment but faxed the group to let them know he was feeling better and was in high spirits.
The unbounded enthusiasm and remarkable strength of the volunteer staff was instrumental in keeping the momentum of the trip going. For two weeks, they shlepped all over the West Coast with the children, waking up at 7 a.m., dressing them, administering medication, providing counseling, monitoring their health, taking them shopping and enveloping them with the warmth and love of a family away from home.
Despite all the support they receive, not all of the children have a smooth experience. One young child who recently underwent brain surgery was particularly combative, and the only person who could calm his outbursts was David Lev, the father of a child who survived cancer several years ago. His personal experiences helped Lev connect with some of the most withdrawn and difficult children on the trip.
Sharon Malka, 32, is a professional children's entertainer in Israel and volunteers for Larger Than Life throughout the year. Goofy and playful, Malka was overwhelmingly affectionate with the kids, constantly wrapping them in hugs, grabbing hold of their hands and throwing his arm around their shoulders.
"At the end of the day, we all sit and share stories and cry," said Shmueli, who has worked with children with HIV in the past. At the staff meetings, they recounted difficult conversations they had with the kids, released emotions they had held back all day and vented their frustrations.
"It's an emotional experience meeting these kids," said Donna Bender, a board member who often joins the visiting children on their daily excursions. "It's really a privilege to be with them. Their extraordinary strength and courage is inspiring."
Shlomoff, Larger Than Life: Los Angeles Family board chair and a successful real estate developer, hosted the first Shabbat dinner for the Israeli group at his home in Beverly Hills. After dinner, a few of the older boys begged to see his Ferrari.
"You don't see Ferraris in Israel," Shlomoff said. "These boys only saw them in the movies."
The next night, Shlomoff and a few of his friends surprised the children at their hotel with a dazzling lineup of seven or eight Ferraris and took them for rides.
Shlomoff took the oldest in the group, an 18-year-old with leukemia whose brother had donated bone marrow to save his life. The transplant went well, but then two months before the trip, the cancer came back aggressively.
"It is a very disgusting, aggressive disease, the boy told me during our ride," Shlomoff said. "I was touched that he was opening up to me like that."
When the boy told Shlomoff that it was his dream to drive a Ferrari, Shlomoff pulled over and let him take the driver's seat.
"He was the happiest guy in the world," Shlomoff recalled. "When we got back, he said to me, 'I've fulfilled my biggest dream. Now I'm ready to die.' Holding back tears, I looked at him and said, 'You're not going to die. You're going to get better and make lots of money and buy yourself your own Ferrari.'"
He said the boy nodded and smiled. For more information, call (877) 952-7437 or visit http://gdolim.co.il (click "English" at top left), or e-mail email@example.com.
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