For Steve Paul, bringing the Magic of Christmas to a group of about 60 Spokane-area homeless and foster children in the form of a flight to the North Pole is a year-round focus that he undertook 14 years ago to "use the power of Santa and Christmas to bring an over-the-top memory for kids usually consumed with worry."
But the added factor that ensures success of the annual Fantasy Flight is the Magic Dust of human caring and compassion that spreads over all those involved with the event, starting with Alaska Airlines, which makes a jetliner and crew and employees of both Alaska and Horizon Air availabl
|Steve Paul, 'Elf Bernie'|
So late afternoon this Saturday, 65 children, aged 4 to 10, selected by shelters and community programs in Spokane and Coeur d'Alene, will board the Alaska 737-900ER at Spokane International Airport, accompanied by their personal elves, for the approximately half-hour flight to the North Pole. Others on board, in addition to the kids and their elves, will be Dave Campbell, new president of Horizon Air, and other representatives of both Alaska and Horizon.
This is the eighth year that Alaska has operated the flight for Northwest North Pole Adventures, the 501c3 that Paul, a Senior IT Project Manager at Ecova,created and serves as president and CEO. He spends much of the year preparing for the event by working with organizations, gathering sponsors and overseeing details, all on a $200,000 budget that includes in-kind, like the Alaska flight.
|Steve Paul with Spokane Mayor David Condon|
So Saturday the children will show up at the airport, meet their "buddy elf" and, with the help of the TSA workers, pass through security despite alarms set off by the metal jingle bells on their clothing. Then they will board Alaska flight 1225, which upon takeoff becomes Santa 1, guided by Paul who, for the day, becomes Bernie, the head Elf.
As the flight nears its conclusion, the passengers will be told to pull the window shades down and chant the magic words that will allow them to land at the North Pole. Then the plane will land on the other side of the Spokane airport to be greeted by Santa, Mrs. Clause, extra elves and a few live reindeer.
A key moment of magic occurs for each child when they have their personal visit with Santa.
As Paul told me, "When we send out invitations to the kids, we have them tell us what they want for Christmas. 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. The looks on their faces as he hands it to them is priceless."
Equally priceless is the reaction of Paul and others involved.
"I know I can't fix the situations in life that have brought these children to the place we find them" he told me. "But I can give them a brain full of amazingly magical memories of a day when they took their first airplane ride, when they touched their first reindeer and had their own elf as best friend."
|Kids aboard Santa 1|
Blythe Thimsen, editor of Spokane Coeur d'Alene Living magazine who first alerted me to this amazing community experience five years ago when she served as an elf on that year's flight, says that"from business leaders, to media, to financial support and those who are elves at heart and want to see this organization succeed, support is ever growing."
"With an outpouring of interest and support from volunteers and the community - to the tune of 30 wannabe elves on the wait list, hoping to be assigned a spot as an elf - it is clear that support for Spokane Fantasy Flight continues to grow in the community," she told me.
United Airlines, which has done these North Pole Fantasy Flights in a number of cities since 1992, launched the Spokane flight in 1997 but the United planes didn't take off, merely taxied around the airport. It was while traveling in and out of Spokane around that time that Paul learned of the flight, which has always been amazingly low visibility, and sought to be involved. He not only became involved but took over responsibility for the event in 2000.
United continued the Spokane flight until 2007 when the airline failed to assign a plane to the event and Paul turned to Alaska, which not only quickly provided the plane but it's employees asked, "why not take them up for a flight?" So Alaska did.
Since then, the Spokane Fantasy Flight has grown in popularity within the business community, despite remaining little known to the general Spokane population, and has become a source of pride and team building for Alaska and Horizon Air.
To the point where, when I asked Paul if he had the same pilots as in previous years, he said that, in fact, there were a couple of Anchorage-based pilots doing the duty this year but that last year's cockpit crew was trying to buy their way back aboard with "payoff" offers to their replacements, who have remained uninterested!
And little wonder since, as Alaska CEO Brad Tilden, who has been involved in the event first in 2011 when he was still president and once since he assumed the CEO role, put it: "Seeing the effect of this in the eyes of the kids is an amazing experience.
For those who might, for any reason, view this as deluding the children, an elf on one of the flights summed it up best. "If you're a little kid on your first plane ride and your ticket says North Pole, and the shades are drawn, and everyone, including the flight attendants and all the elves are saying the magic words, then who's to say you haven't landed at the real North Pole?"
Or as Paul sums it up for the longer-term perspective: "My hope is that the children leave with a stronger sense of belief, not only in the magic of Christmas but in themselves and the possibility of positive things in their future."
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