It was a decade ago that what I like to refer to as the "magic dust of caring" was first sprinkled on a planeload of orphans and homeless kids from the Spokane area, and on their elves, aboard an Alaska Airlines flight to the North Pole for a visit with Santa Claus.
This "Fantasy Flight" to the North Pole has been an annual event in Spokane, with only occasional visibility, for almost 20 years. But it wasn't until Alaska got involved in 2008 at the request of Steve Paul, President, and CEO of the 501c3 that he guides and who has personally overseen the event since 2000, that the real magic arrived as well.
Thus, last Saturday, 57 of the Spokane and Coeur d'Alene area's most needy children, each with an elf personally assigned to them, hurried aboard an Alaska 737-900 for a 20-minute flight to visit Santa and Mrs. Clause at their North Pole home, in reality a specially set-up hanger on the other side of the airport, for their memorable visit.
This 10th anniversary year for Alaska involvement included a special gift to all involved as the airlines' Alaska BEYOND magazine had its cover story for this month about the event in an article filled with photos as well as the story so Alaska's passengers across the system learned of this unique event and their favorite airline's role in it.
This year was also marked by a special "first." As Paul was pleased to share.
"In 2018, we had our first Escort Elf (this is an elf that is assigned to a child) that had attended as a child, back in 2003. Today, she is an employee of United Airlines. We have come full circle!"
Thus when the Spokane area orphans and homeless kids and their elves take off on a December Saturday each year from Spokane International Airport aboard flight 1225 for the North Pole to meet Santa, it's proof of both the "impossible things" that Paul, officially Chief Elf Bernie, believes in, as well as evidence of that "Magic Dust of Caring."
Retelling and updating this story has been my holiday gift to readers of The Harp since then because it's a story of human caring and compassion that not only won't get old but perhaps becomes more needed each year.
Paul, president of the non-profit Northwest North Pole Adventures (NNPA), is senior IT Project Manager at Engje Insight, an energy management company rebranded a year ago from Ecova. But he spends much of the year preparing for the flight. He works with social agencies that select the children, gathers sponsors and oversees details like elf selection, all on a budget of about $200,000 that includes in-kind, like the Alaska flight.
Paul, who was 43 in people years when he first got involved in 2000, says his elf age is 907 years, but that is really only middle age for elves so he still has a ways to go.
But when United was unable to provide a plane in 2007, Paul recalls: "we threw together the 'magic buses' to get from the Terminal to the North Pole."
For the 2008 flight, Paul approached Alaska, which he notes "is, of course, more familiar with the North Pole than any other airline." Those he contacted at the airline said "sure," and asked, "why can't we actually take off with the kids?"
So it began. Before boarding their plane, the children are fed and receive backpacks filled with school supplies, winter woolies and a T-shirt that says, "I Believe" on the front and "I've Been to the North Pole" on the back. Then their "passports" are validated with the "North Pole Approved" stamp and they're on their way to a magical time the elves, Elf Bernie and Alaska's employees will try to make unforgettable.
Perhaps the most visible in his commitment is Alaska pilot Eric Hrivnak, who has been the pilot at the controls for a half dozen or so years by being at the front of the line as Alaska employees sign up for roles. He was beaten to the request by another pilot a few years ago so made sure that wouldn't happen thereafter.
Hrivnak and his Alaska crew are part of the magic since as the flight nears its conclusion, the passengers are told to pull the window shades down and chant the magic words that will allow them to land at the North Pole.
As the kids pull down their shades and do a chant, each wave a magic light wand they were given as they boarded and then Hrivnak deploys the engine thrusters when Santa and Rudolph appear on the radar screen, providing the confirmation that the "Santa 1" flight has entered North Pole airspace.
The jetliner taxis to a hanger on the other side of the airport, where the passengers are greeted by a group of elves, with live reindeer milling about, and are they taken to meet Santa and Mrs. Clause.
"When we send out invitations to the kids, we have them give us a wish list of what they want for Christmas," explains Paul.
"We take those lists and buy each of them a toy from that list. So as each child tells Santa what he or she wants, Santa can reach into his bag and pull that present out for them," adds Paul "The looks on their faces as he hands it to them is priceless."
I asked Paul for some thoughts to sum up his role of almost 20 years with this event.
"This is my 19th year as a volunteer and my 12th year as Chief Elf and each year, the event improves from the years before and even though we've done this many times, we can continue to do better," he said. "Leading an organization that embraces change for improvement's sake makes this position fulfilling and humbling at the same time."
"The Fantasy flight is a chance to share the joy and the magic of flight with those who need it most," said Diana Birkett Rakow, Alaska's vice president for external relations. "The volunteers, including many of our employees, are incredible, and while we set out to lift the spirits of our littlest guests on the way to the North Pole - inevitably, they lift ours."