Published: Tuesday, August 16, 2011, 8:00 PM Updated: Tuesday, August 16, 2011, 8:00 PM
By Eugene Paik/The Star-Ledger
NEWARK — Waiting at Gate C2 at Newark Liberty International Airport this morning, scores of children giggled and chattered about the week ahead of them in San Francisco. Attending to them was an army of volunteers and medical professionals who handled their baggage: wheelchairs, oxygen tanks and other equipment needed to keep them alive.
Talk about the challenges of air travel.
This was a cross-country journey designed to show the 120 children, all chronically ill and from the tri-state area, that vacation doesn’t mean having to stay close to home. Best of all, the trip was free of charge.
The undertaking was coordinated by the Long Island, N.Y.-based nonprofit Kids of Courage, a largely volunteer group that offers recreational trips for children who couldn’t otherwise handle the journey.
“We wanted to make a difference in their lives,” said Ari Adlerstein, director and co-founder of Kids of Courage. “We find that travel is a very empowering thing for these kids.”
This is the third year Kids of Courage has staged a major vacation for seriously ill children. In 2009, the group flew them to Disney World in Orlando, Fla. Last year, the destination was Los Angeles.
This year, 150 children will congregate in San Francisco for a week of the Pacific Ocean, the beach, Alcatraz, amusement parks and a baseball game. The New Jersey contingent will be met by children from points such as Charlotte, N.C., Canada and Israel.
Each child is paired up with at least one volunteer, who is required to undergo a screening and training process beforehand. The most impaired children could be partnered with as many as three volunteers, said Stuart Ditchek, medical director for Kids of Courage.
Four doctors, 12 nurses, four paramedics and hundreds of volunteers will stand ready for the children in San Francisco, he said. Parents are not allowed on the trip.
The only thing Racheli and Tsvi Herzfeld is concerned about is what they will do when they reach the West Coast. Racheli, an 11-year-old girl from Teaneck, is excited about everything on the itinerary, from the amusement parks to the Jelly Belly factory. Meanwhile, her older brother, Tzvi, has fixated his thoughts on the Golden Gate Bridge.
It’s the first trip to California for the children, who depend on wheelchairs because of a nerve syndrome that both share: Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease. The disorder atrophies muscle tissue in the feet and hands but is not considered terminal.
For 11-year-old Chayanechama Pruzansky, of Lakewood, the seeds of a new friendship were planted yesterday when she met her counselor, Danielle Peretz, 22, for the first time at the airport.
The two will be inseparable throughout the trip. Peretz, of Brooklyn, will steer Pruzansky’s wheelchair, make sure the girl is comfortable and, above all, be a friend.
Before the flight, the two shared laughs and high-fives. “We’re going to have a lot of fun,” Peretz said.
And that shows the program’s true worth, Ditchek said. Too many times, children with serious disorders have turned into shut-ins, he said.
This program aims to change that.
“It’s all about the camaraderie between the kids and their peers,” Ditchek said. “This is their social network.”