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."
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