Volunteers give sick kids a bit of Orlando magic

(CBS News) KISSIMMEE, Fla. - There is no shortage of bad news, which makes this story so unusual. It's a story about some ordinary people who have been doing extraordinary things and doing them for a long time. For two decades, they have opened their hearts to more than 100,000 sick children.

Joe Koch retired as a Philadelphia mailman in 1989. But three days a week, he still delivers gifts for children who need reason to smile.

The 84-year-old has volunteered for nearly 20 years at Give Kids the World. He said he spent over 20,000 hours at the charity over the years.When told that's a full-time job for about ten years, Koch responds, "Yeah."

Give Kids the World is a charity resort that houses sick kids and their families while they visit Orlando's theme parks, free of charge. Last year, more than 7,000 families came here for what is, too often, their last vacation together.

Volunteers like Koch try to give them the best week of their lives.

"Things have happened where children never opened their eyes or never even talked until they came here," he said. "It's like a miracle place."

Eleven years ago, Alyssa Pietruszka came to the resort. She had been in hospice care with stage 3 kidney cancer.

"Right when my parents got the news when I was diagnosed," said Alyssa today, "I saw them cry, really really hard. And that was really hard." She acknowledged that everything she found at Give Kids the World made a difference.

At Give Kids the World, Alyssa got her wish -- to be a different princess every day. She's now 14 and cancer-free.

"I wasn't talking, walking, nothing," she said. "And right when I went through the gates of Give Kids the World, I was running and I was laughing. My parents thought, 'Wow. Maybe this will make it better.'"

Alyssa is one of nearly 50,000 volunteers who has kept this place running. Joe Koch has spent more time here than any of them. Asked if volunteering was the right way to spend his retirement, Koch responded: "It's what's keeping me alive."

Hope is the real magic medicine here -- hope, and ice cream for breakfast.

  • Mark Strassmann

    Mark Strassmann has been a CBS News correspondent since January 2001 and is based in the Atlanta bureau.