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updated 10:27 PM CDT, Sep 8, 2016

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Spokane Fantasy Flight for orphans, homeless kids sprinkles 'magic dust' of caring on all

Hopefully everyone in need of positive thoughts in these emotion-charged times will in some way be touched by the same "Magic Dust" of caring that sprinkles over all those involved with Saturday's Spokane Fantasy Flight for 62 orphans and homeless kids and their elves to Santa's North Pole home aboard an Alaska Airlines 737-900.

Steve Paul, 'Elf Bernie' 
The magic manifests itself not only in the eyes of the youngsters, ranging in age from 4 to 10 years, selected by shelters and community programs in Spokane and Coeur d'Alene, but also on the faces of the dozens of adults, ranging from TSA agents to elves to Alaska flight-crew members and volunteers.

This will be the 19th Fantasy Flight from Spokane International Airport, although it was United Airlines that created the event in 1997 and hosted the children until 2008 when a scheduling snafu left no plane available for Spokane. Alaska quickly stepped up to save the day, and bring a new specialness to the event, going aloft for a real flight.

United had taxied the planeload of kids around the airport, but employees of Alaska, which of course is more familiar with the North Pole than any airline, asked "why can't we actually take off with the kids?" So in fact they did, carrying 60 kids and their elves aloft for a 40 minute flight to Santa's home. And so it has been since then.
 
Alaska pilot Eric Hrivnak 
So Saturday afternoon the children are brought to the airport where each meets his or her "buddy elf." Then, with the help of the TSA workers, who look the other way as metal jingle bells on the kids' and elves' clothing set off alarms, they all pass through security and board the Alaska flight, which upon takeoff becomes Santa 1 with First Officer Eric Hrivnak, at the controls.
 
For the eight years since that first Alaska flight, the airline has partnered with Northwest North Pole Adventures, the 501c3 created by Steve Paul, "Elf Bernie" on flight day. But the rest of the year Paul is president and CEO of little non-profit and he spends the months preparing for the event by working with organizations, gathering sponsors and overseeing details, all on a $200,000 budget that includes in-kind, biggest of which is the Alaska flight.
 
Paul isn't a wealthy do-gooder who commits to the annual flight as his philanthropy. Rather he has a fulltime job as project manager for Spokane-based Ecova, a national utility and energy-management company
 
It is Paul who is also responsible for the details of making the day special for the kids and, as he once told me,  "I know I can't fix the situations in life that have brought these children to the place we find them. 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, and met Santa in his North Pole home."
 
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 waves 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.
 
Then the pilot lands the plane on the other side of the Spokane airport and the kids and their elves get off, 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."
 
Longtime readers of the column will be familiar with the story since this has become my regular Christmas season offering after my friend Blythe Thimsen, editor of Spokane Coeur d'Alene Living magazine, first alerted me to this amazing community experience six years ago. She served as an elf on that year's flight and wrote of the experience for her magazine.
 
But except for coverage by Seattle's Q13 a couple of times, and again this year, including a piece they sent to CNN two years ago that gained the event national coverage, I've been struck by the general lack of media attention.
 
Although Alaska's CEO Brad Tilden wrote about the event in the Alaska Airlines magazine a couple of years ago, neither the airline nor Paul and his organization have sought attention for themselves for their involvement.

But there is a high-visibility desire on the part of Alaska crew members to participate, as evidenced by the fact that after several years as the captain of the trip, Hrivnak was beaten out last year by other pilots who wanted to guide the trip.

But he made sure he was back at the top of the list this year and thus will be the captain at the controls again this year. 
 
In fact, because this is Paul's 15th year guiding the event, which touches him each year as he experiences using "the power of Santa and Christmas to bring an over-the-top memory for kids usually consumed with worry," I thought of making this column about him.

But when I mentioned that intent to Paul, whom I talk with each year for the column, he seemed to actually bristle at the idea of my focusing on him.

"This event is NOT about me. Never was and never will be," he emailed me. "This event is about injecting a wondrous and magical spirit of Christmas into children that most likely would grow up without such a chance. 

"What our leadership team does (all year long) is to sustain an entity that will continue to deliver on our 1st promise to these children - an amazing day of unimaginable memories of happiness, love and pure joy. Nothing more." he said.
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