Serving up holiday cheer at the North Pole
Yvonne Hoffman, a member of the Rotary Club of Herndon, Virginia, USA, helps a Fantasy Flight guest make a holiday craft. Below; a guest makes a holiday bracelet at the craft table, sponsored by the club. Photos by Mary Drum/Rotary Club of Herndon
About 150 gravely ill children and their families embarked on a special “flight” to the North Pole on 13 December, aboard a Boeing 777 out of Dulles International Airport in Washington, D.C..
For the second year in a row, members of the Rotary Club of Herndon, Virginia, USA, were there to see them off and help the children make holiday crafts as they prepared to meet Santa and Mrs. Claus.
"It's magical for the kids," says Steve Cohen, a member of the Herndon club and one of many United Airlines employees who volunteer for the annual Fantasy Flight. "Everyone forgets what's happening in their lives, and for a couple of hours, including for the parents, it's a winter wonderland."
Since 1990, United Airlines has partnered with Children's Hospice International to bring the joy of the holidays to children battling terminal illnesses. The children, selected from hospitals and hospices in the region, were shuttled from the main terminal to Gate D7, where they and a few family members boarded United Flight 9908. The plane headed onto the runway and the pilot throttled up, simulating a takeoff.
The pilot then threw the engines into reverse before taxiing back to Gate D29, decorated as the North Pole. Cartoon characters, musicians, face painters, and other entertainers joined Santa and Mrs. Claus, who distributed gifts selected from the kids' wish lists.
Cohen, a flight attendant, has taken part in the Fantasy Flight for five years. When organizers faced a shortage of volunteers last year, Cohen suggested that members of his Rotary club could help.
This year, United welcomed the club back, and a dozen Rotarians, joined by Charles Davidson, governor of Rotary International District 7610 (Virginia), helped the guests make Christmas ornaments, decorate gingerbread cookies, and create Christmas cards.
"The children were really enjoying themselves," says Davidson. "You could see the great expressions of excitement on their faces. At least for part of the day, they could forget about their personal troubles."
Chazz Banks, manager of international operations for United Airlines at Dulles and chair of the event, says his team appreciates the Herndon club's help. "It's a massive undertaking."
"It's a wonderful experience for everyone," Cohen says. "We feel very grateful for United allowing us, as an outside organization, to be involved."
Davidson says the event gave Rotary great exposure, and "shows what you can do partnering with other people."
Cohen hopes to encourage clubs in other cities where United has a hub to get involved in the program. Banks says other Fantasy Flights were planned this year in Denver, Colorado; Phoenix, Arizona; Chicago; and Los Angeles.