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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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Uniqueness of Alaska's Spokane Fantasy Flight for kids is in the 'magic dust' of human caring

A unique example of the Magic of Christmas will be in evidence in Spokane on Saturday when 66 disadvantaged kids plus their personal elves and a supporting entourage board one of Alaska Airlines largest and newest 737-900s, designated "Santa 1," for a Fantasy Flight to the North Pole.

But the excitement that surrounds Spokane International Airport for this annual event transcends even this special holiday and instead represents the "magic dust" of human caring that settles over airline employees and the local volunteers who make the kids' trip of a lifetime possible.

 

This will be the sixth year that an Alaka plane, with employees

Alaska pilot Eric Hrivnak and friend

 from both Alaska and Horizon Air joining the organizers, has taken off for a 40 minute flight with the kids ages 4 to 10 who are chosen from shelters and community programs in Spokane and Coeur d'Alene, Idaho.

 

And it will be the third year that Eric Hrivnak, an Alaska pilot for more than 13 years, has been the cockpit guide for the flight to Santa's home.

He says he decided early on that "I could make it a lot more fun," but confesses he's "never seen anything like what happens with these kids. I saw a counselor crying as she told me of one of her foster kids, 'It's the first time I've ever seen him smile.'"

 

Steve Paul, "Elf Bernie,"

and fan

Steve Paul, president of Northwest North Pole Adventures, the 501c3 that he has guided for more than six years as the organization that puts on the event, explained that the children selected each year are homeless or from transitional living centers or adoption groups.

 

Each child, as they all get off the bus that has picked them up for their trip to the airport, is greeted by their personal elf and given a t-shirt that says "I believe" on the front and "I've been to the North Pole" on the back. Each also receives a special-issue passport with their picture and the picture of them with their elf.

 

Paul, who is "Elf Bernie" at the event, explains that Hrivnak, the pilot, once the plane has been aloft and is ready to land, helps bring the children into the process of breaking through the North Pole 'protective barrier.'

 

The kids pull down their window shades, 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.

 

Minutes later, the plane lands and the kids have arrived at the North Pole -- in reality, a decorated hangar at the far end of the Spokane airport.

 

The kids leave the plane and walk with their elves down the red carpet, lined with more elves on both sides, and then encounter a fantasy come true: a magician, musicians and face painters, as well as an endless supply of snacks, games, and arts and crafts, plus live reindeer. And, of course, each child receives some specialone-on-one time with the Man himself.

 

That visit with Santa is made forever memorable for each child because, as Paul explains, they were all asked for a list of what they'd like from Santa, and "we took those lists and bought each of them a toy from that list. So as each child tells Santa what they want, he can reach into his bag and pull that present out for them. The looks on their faces as he hands it to them is just priceless."

 

Bobbie Egan, Alaska's media relations director who participated in the flight last year for the first time, said "I was moved beyond words. Once you see how the lives of these kids are impacted by this experience, the temptation is to want to do it everywhere."

 

Local Spokane area visibility for the annual event has helped grow cash and in-kind donations to a budget of $175,000 this year, with Alaska remaining the largest corporate donor, but to that has been added a new $10,000 donor and "many new $3,000-$5,000 donors," Paul said.

 

The Spokane Fantasy Flight isn't the only one that occurs. In fact, United Airlines, which conducts such flights in 20 cities and has been doing them for 23 years, most for children with life-threatening or terminal illnesses, had 2013's first North Pole flights last weekend in Los Angeles, Phoenix, San Antonio and Cleveland.

 

But Spokane is the smallest city in which such Fantasy Flights occur and has thus brought a community focus that would be difficult in a major city. And this is the only Alaska Airlines North Pole flight.

 

United had actually launched the Spokane Fantasy Flight in 1998, but the jetliners didn't take off, rather just taxiing around

the airport. But the event had virtually no visibility beyond the non-profits involved, at first the Spokane YWCA, and the kids and elves who participated.

 

In 2008, Alaska leaped in to take over the event after a United snafu left no plane available for Spokane. 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.

 

Alaska CEO Brad Tilden says the carrier loves its involvement with the event. "Reaching these deserving children in this special way touches the hearts of every one of our employees who participates."

 

Despite the uniqueness of the event, it got no visibility until two years later when my friend, Blythe Thimsen, editor of Spokaneand Coeur d'Alene Living, told me about her excitement at getting to be an elf that year and that she'd be writing about in her magazine, providing the first media look at the event. But she was kind enough to let me upstage the magazine's publication date with my first column on the event.

 

Two years ago, KCPQ-TV, Channel 13, in Seattle sent a crew to cover the event and produced a version for CNN, which thus brought national visibility.

 

The first Fantasy Flight occurred in London, England in December 1991, when United Airlines donated a 727 to fly one hundred children from an orphanage to Lapland, Rovaneimi Finland for reindeer sleigh rides and a visit to "Father Christmas Village". The success of the "Fantasy Flight" concept gradually expanded to over forty six cities, providing needy and ill children with an experience of a lifetime.

 

 

Few have summed up the Spokane event better than Gail Spaeth, an Alaska flight attendant who was part of the crew for the first Alaska North Pole flight: "This didn't just make our Christmas, this was our Christmas," she said. "These kids don't have much, so to be a part of something that will provide such a great memory for them is just amazing."

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