A Fantasy Flight
Flight 1225 from LaGuardia to the North Pole only makes one “trip” a year, but the tickets are priceless. Tribune Photo by Angela Montefinise
By Angela Montefinise
Inside of US Air’s Gate 21 at LaGuardia Airport this week, nearly 100 smiling kids stood anxiously with their parents and relatives, waiting with gleeful anticipation for a very special boarding call.
That call was for US Air Flight 1225 – a flight listed on the airport’s various departure screens as headed to the North Pole.
But this wasn’t an average flight.
This was a Fantasy Flight to the North Pole organized by the Silverliners, a group of retired Eastern Airways stewardesses that do various works of charity and goodwill during the year.
The Fantasy Flight, which this year took place on Dec. 13 but has been going on in New York for approximately 20 years, makes the holidays magic for a special group of kids by putting them on a plane and taking them to the "North Pole," or another airport termimal decorated for the holidays.
Santa and Mrs. Claus wait for the kids with gifts each year, while volunteers offer games, craft workshops, sweets and magic acts.
The kids who take the trip are from Schneider Children’s Hospital in New Hyde Park, a part of the North Shore-Long Island Jewish Health System. They suffer from a variety of cancers and blood diseases, and the Silverliners treat them and their families to this free fantasy "trip" every year.
Rich Galante, a social worker at Schneider, said, "You see the joy and the spirit of love amongst their families. Their lives have been forever changed by an illness. There’s so much pain and suffering, and this day is just so special for them."
He added, "We give them this day, but the truth is, these children have so much love to give us, and love is circular. They’re the real heroes."
The Trip Of A Lifetime
The much-anticipated boarding call for Flight 1225 – named in honor of the date that Christmas falls on – came at about 11 a.m. on Dec. 13.
The children quickly lined up and prepared to board the plane, which was piloted by Ohio resident and US Air pilot Jerry Kemp.
Elves, who double as US Air employees and their children, joined Silverliner volunteers in welcoming the kids on board. After the plane’s regular safety messages were shown, the plane started moving – prompting cheers from the group.
Parent Jeff Sidorski looked down to his young son John and said, "Are you ready? We’re going to see Santa Clause."
John’s sister Victoria is a patient at Schneider, and sat smiling in her seat waiting to "arrive" at the North Pole. Her dad said, "This is fantastic. It’s an overwhelming thing that they wanted to do this for my kids."
He added that John, Victoria and his other daughter Rachel have been "looking forward to this for weeks," and said, "They are just so excited. It’s touching that [the Silverliners] wanted to make this day special for us."
The group sang "Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer," "Jingle Bells," and a host of other holiday songs while the plane "flew" to the North Pole. The stewardesses – who all volunteered to take the "flight" along with the pilot – gave out ornaments and closed all of the plane’s window shades so no one could plot the route to Santa’s secret workshop.
After about 20 minutes, the plane’s first office said over the loudspeaker, "The North Pole has been informed of our approach. Santa has been notified. Let me hear some noise if you’re ready."
The kids cheered as the plane "landed." Everyone exited the flight, which was surprisingly short considering the distance between Queens and the North Pole. Kemp, who volunteered for the first time, said, "We got cleared direct. It was a real quick flight . . . Flying to the North Pole is tough the first time."
He added that he volunteered because of the kids, and said, "The smiles are what did it for me. It just gets you."
As the kids and their families hustled out of the plane and into the jetway, a blast of cold air – let in by the Silverliners – welcomed them.
"See, the North Pole is cold," one parent said to her son. The boy, unnerved by the weather, marveled at the balloons and decorations all over the terminal, said, "Where’s Santa, mommy? I want to see Santa?"
Sitting on a throne near a large window was Santa Claus, whose wife Mrs. Claus was taking photos of all the kids on his lap. Although Santa is very busy in December, he said, "For these kids, I’ll make time."
Each child was given a special gift from Santa that was donated by the plush doll company Gund. Some kids asked for guitars, some asked for bikes. Some asked for action figures, and some asked for dolls.
After the visit, kids could grab a treat on a long table of goodies, including cheeseburgers donated by McDonald’s, cookies, hot dogs, hero sandwiches, pasta, chips, candy bars and a host of other free treats.
They could also go to a stocking-making workshop, manned by US Air volunteers.
As Jamaica resident Alah Middleton watched her daughter Aiyana walk to the stocking workshop with an enthusiastic volunteer, she said, "I’m overwhelmed. This is so special for my daughter. She was so excited to be boarding a plane. She loves planes."
Aiyana’s sisters Brittany and Kayla were also there, as well as her cousin Lavar. Alah said, "They’re really too young to understand this whole thing, but now that they’re here, they’re really excited."
Her four-year-old son Victor is a patient at Schneider, so he and his siblings and cousin attended the flight. Victor’s sister Michelle brought cards for the kids at Schneider created by fellow students at Long Beach Middle School.
Samantha Tarantino said, "It brings tears to my eyes that they would do this for these kids. I cried when I got the invitation."
Lending A Hand
Mary McDermott, Silverliner New York Chapter President, agreed, and said, "It feels terrific to do this for the kids. It’s just a terrific feeling. The children are so appreciative and the Silverliners love to be with them."
A US Air volunteer helps Jamaica resident Aiyana Middleton make a stocking. Tribune Photo by Angela Montefinise
She added, "It is sort of like chicken soup for the soul."
Rachel Kemble, a child life specialist at Schneider, attended the event for this first time this year, and she said, "We start getting the kids excited about this is October. We really build it up, and the kids get really excited . . . Kids only go on this one time, so the kids who have been on it before always tell the ones going this year how great it is, and it gets the kids even more excited."
Caryn Kerwick, whose mother Rayleen Fiske was a past president of the Silverliners, said she has been coming to Fantasy Flights for the past 20 years, and said, "My holiday starts after this event."
She was dressed at this year’s Fantasy Flight in a toy soldier costume, and she said, "The first time anyone does this, they have to cry. It’s just so beautiful . . . When my husband Greg proposed to me 10 years ago, I told him I would marry him on the condition that he did this with me every year. Well, now he loves it like I do."
A Fairy Tale Ending
After the party in the "North Pole," the kids leave with their parents from the terminal, and one little boy looked up at his mother, present clenched in hand, and said, "Mommy, that was so great. I loved it."
Another little girl told her mother as they left the terminal, "I can’t believe I went to the North Pole."
Galante, smiling while looking at the kids, said, "This is what it’s all about. We made magic for these kids today. What better gift can we give than that?"