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Away from it allBy Jenna Conter | Jun 1, 2012
Tags: Air Canada, Dreams Take Flight
The Dreams Take Flight charity offers kids the adventure of a lifetime.
It’s Sarah’s 14th birthday. Even though it’s 3:30 a.m., she can’t believe that the day is finally here: she’s going to Disney World. The only thing that would make this day even better would be if her family could join her. “I was on the list last year but they didn’t have space,” she says as she boards her first flight. “We knew it was coming this year. It was a long year!”
Being a live-in baby sitter to her sister’s new baby, watching her parents struggling to make ends meet, and with her grandmother in and out of hospital, Sarah never thought that she would travel to the “Happiest Place on Earth.” Thanks to Air Canada’s Dreams Take Flight, it will be well worth the wait and Sarah gets a day to escape and just be a kid.
Dreams Take Flight is a countrywide charity that has been packing planes full of children and taking them on the adventure of a lifetime. Brian Lent, president of Dreams Take Flight Atlantic, remembers when the charity began in 1989 in Toronto. The idea was the brainchild of a group of Air Canada employees looking to make the difference for children in difficult situations. “I worked in Toronto for a few of the flights so when I transferred to Halifax I got a group together and started the first dream flight out of Halifax,” he says.
Dreams Take Flight is a registered charity that brings a little light into some dark circumstances. “The children are selected by programs such as Child Welfare Services and through the school systems’ breakfast clubs or local Lion’s Club organizations,” Mark Kays says.
A cargo agent with Air Canada, Kays has been involved in the charity since 1996. With a diamond Mickey Mouse earring in his ear and a Cheshire cat smile, Kays shares his favourite part of the charity. “It’s just to die for when you see the looks on their faces when you tell them they’re going to Disney,” he says. “That’s what makes this so much fun.”
Having experienced an “unhappy childhood,” Kays understands what a day like this does for a child in need of a vacation from reality. “I had a stepfather that was a heavy drinker and made my life miserable,” he says. “I gravitated to this program when I saw how it helped.”
Now about to board his 17th Dreams flight, Kays says the trips can be hard on the chaperones. “When the plane lands and we get them back to their parent or guardian—then that’s it.”
Long-time chaperone and first-time group leader Mark Arsenault illustrates with a story about how each child is given $75 to spend at the gift shops. “One year I had a kid who just refused to shop; there was nothing he seemed to want to buy,” Arsenault says. “Finally after almost an hour of showing him everything in Downtown Disney, he turned to me and confessed, ‘My dad says that if I didn’t bring him the money, he’d kill me.’”
You can’t change it, Kays says, you just give them this day and hope it makes it all a little easier.
It’s now April 4, two weeks to go until this year’s Dreams flight. The Atlantic Chapter is now in its 18th year and the group leaders have come together to get the information for their group.
The first flight in 1989 packed a DC-9 with 70 kids. Today Air Canada has donated a Boeing 767 that will take 211 volunteers and kids to Disney World in Orlando, Florida. The charity also has chapters in Toronto, Vancouver, Calgary, Montreal, Edmonton, Winnipeg and Ottawa.
“The committee is mostly made up of Air Canada employees, either current or past,” Kays says. “Air Canada donates the plane, the crews volunteer their time, and the rest we do ourselves.”
Averaging about $1,000 a child, Kays says, the committee looks to clear at least $140,000 through fundraising to cover the fuel and additional costs such as Disney passes and giveaways for the kids.
It’s now two weeks later and I’m at the airport. Kids aged seven to 16 surround me. Thanks to donations and fundraising, the youngsters are decked out in new running shoes, shorts and charity t-shirts. Whisked through security and onto the plane, I embrace my mental age of seven and can’t help but smile when a flight attendant sporting Mickey Mouse ears offers me some breakfast.
The PA system counts down from 10 for take off and landing, all the while the plane is abuzz with cheers and screams. Landing in Disney, the kids are filed out and gathered in front of the plane for a group picture. Like a choreographed dance, we’re shuffled into Disney buses and zoomed to Disney World then off the buses and onto the riverboat cruise where we glide into the Magic Kingdom.
At the gate Joe Buckwalter welcomes us. As global media support and a park event operations manager, Buckwalter has participated in several Dreams flights. “I retired and went to work for Disney,” he says. “Initially I thought I would spend about six months with them and it’s going on 11 years now so this is my 11th Dreams Take Flight.”
Once a court-appointed guardian, Buckwalter continues to be a vital part of Dreams Take Flight. “I am absolutely amazed at all the participation from the community in Canada,” he says. “If more people are aware of it, the more funds we can raise, the more funds you can raise, the more children we can serve.”
Kays agrees. “Longevity is indefinite,” he says. “As long as we can fundraise and make enough money and Air Canada gives us the airplane, there’s a dream flight.”
After countless rides and hijinks, including a character lunch at the Crystal Palace in the Magic Kingdom, (covered by Clearwater Fine Foods), the day has come to a close. Monorail. Bus. Plane, (where a Mickey Mouse doll and ears await every kid). Organizers dubbed the trip home the “Coma Flight,” as the kids pass out pretty well as soon as they’re seated on the plane.
Touchdown in Halifax is bittersweet. “Most of us would adopt them, and you hate to see them go back to some of lives they go back to, but we have to learn to cut the threads,” Kays says.
The kids are greeted by an assortment of parents, guardians, and social workers.
Fourteen-year-old Sarah, back from her first trip to Disney World, turns and smiles at the grown-up volunteers as she puts her goodies in her new Bentley’s backpack, and then solemnly shuffles into the crowd.