KISSIMMEE, Florida –Foes became friends last week at Give Kids the World.
Pro Bowl players from the NFC and AFC squads spent an afternoon away from football, deflecting the spotlight off of themselves and onto children courageously fighting life-threatening illnesses.
When Harrison Smith saw an opportunity to visit the Give Kids the World Village during his stay in Florida, he knew immediately that he wanted to volunteer.
Smith spent time talking with families, posing for photos and signing autographs. While some of the youth were NFL fans excited to meet their heroes, others were just happy with the attention and smiles Smith offered them.
"This [event] kind of caught my eye just because of what these families are going through, and they get to come here and have a piece of happiness," Smith said. "Just getting to interact with them, even if they don't know who I am."
One of the first children Smith met was a Vikings fan who raved about Sam Bradford. Later, a young boy wearing a Packers jersey boldly approached Smith and asked him, "Don't you think Jordy Nelson is really good?" Smith couldn't help but smile as he swapped football stories with him and smiled for a photo.
Smith said that in a situation where youth are fighting for their lives, it's easy to look past team alliances.
Smith spent time visiting terminally ill children and talking with families at the 2017 Pro Bowl in Orlando.
"They're just having fun," Smith said. "It's great."
Smith was joined at the event by Bengals defensive tackle Geno Atkins and Broncos wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders, in addition to a number of team cheerleaders and NFL alumni. The event featured lively music, face painting, games and even a photo booth.
According to Give Kids the World President and CEO Pamela Landwirth, the 79-acre village has 168 villas that house approximately 150 families on any given night. The non-profit program is the only one of its kind in the world and is open 365 days a year. In its 30 years of operation, Give Kids the World has served more than 150,000 families from 76 different countries.
Landwirth said Minnesota is one of the most common states they welcome guests from, and former Vikings linebacker Fred McNeill at one time served on the program's board.
"We have a special connection to the Vikings," said Landwirth.
Landwirth smiled as she gestured to the festivities going on around her. She said the difference Smith and the other players made was undeniable, but the influence worked both ways.
Volunteers often tell Landwirth that they get even more out of the visits than they put into them.
"It's an inspiration for them to see children who are facing battles that are almost unimaginable, not even knowing if they're going to throw up, and they're here smiling and laughing," Landwirth said. "They're dancing, they're cheering, and they're taking every single moment of every single day in their life and living it to the fullest."
The Pro Bowl focus was a special event, but Landwirth explained that Give Kids the World hosts a party of some sort every single night.
Another special guest arrived toward the end of the evening to illustrate Landwirth's point – and he didn't play for a football team. Children squealed with excitement at the sight of Santa Claus, complete with a full white beard and red suit, and Landwirth explained that they celebrate Christmas every Thursday and Halloween every Monday for the terminally ill guests of honor and their families.
It's all part of providing a sense of normalcy.
"Seeing the children and the families when they first come, they look so tired and like they've lost all hope, and then that transformation happens," Landwirth said. "They reconnect as a family and remember what it's like to just be a child."
She said the NFL players helped with that process during their visit.
Smith gave his full attention to each young person he interacted with, intentionally making each individual feel important and valued. For Smith, the opportunity to step away from the football field for a couple of hours to make a difference in the lives of young people was a privilege he couldn't pass up.
"I think we need to get out and mix it up in whatever communities we're in, whether it's Minnesota or our hometowns or something like this," Smith said. "It's about the families, it's about the kids … just trying to put a smile on the kids' faces – that's all that matters."