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updated 2:54 PM CDT, Jul 28, 2018

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Alaska Airlines' 'magical' Spokane Fantasy Flight

When 67 Spokane area orphans and homeless kids and their elves take off Saturday from Spokane International Airport for a "flight" to the North Pole to meet Santa, it will be proof of both the "impossible things" that head elf Steve Paul believes in as well as evidence of "The Magic Dust of Caring" that seems to settle on those involved.

This year's Fantasy Flight is aboard an Alaska Airlines 737-900. This trip to the North Pole has been an annual event in Spokane, with little visibility, for almost 20 years. But it wasn't until Alaska got involved in 2008 at the request of Paul, president and CEO of the 501c3 that
  
Steve Paul and Santa-bound child

oversees details of the event, that the real magic arrived as well.

Paul, president of Northwest North Pole Adventures (NNPA), has guided details of the yearly event since 2000. The senior IT Project Manager at Ecova, an energy management company based in Spokane, 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 $200,000 budget that includes in-kind, like the Alaska flight.
Alaska pilot and happy child 
Originally United was the airline partner and provided the little organization that was then called North Pole Adventure with a plane that, once loaded with the children, taxied around the airport before coming to a stop at Santa's place.

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."

ThenPaul approached Alaska, which not only agreed to provide the plane but executives asked the event-changing question: "is there any reason why we don't take them up the air for the trip to the North Pole?"

Since then Alaska's employees have not only been enthusiastic participants, but often compete to be part of the crew.

"It's fair to say that Spokane Fantasy Flight...has as much of an effect on Alaska and Horizon employees as on the children who are treated like kings and queens for a night," said Alaska Airlines Chairman and CEO Brad Tilden.

To ensure the selection process for these children is reaching the most deserving, NNPA works only with the area's social agencies, which use their selection and screening processes to pull the children who desperately need to create positive Christmas holiday memories. Each child may only attend once in their lifetime.

So Saturday afternoon the children, age 4-10, 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.

I first learned of the event a half dozen years ago from my friend, Blythe Thimsen, then editor of a Spokane magazine who was to be an elf that year, an experience she subsequently wrote about and sent me a copy of the article.

Retelling and updating the story has been my holiday gift to readers of The Harp since then because it's a story of human caring and compassion that won't get old.
I asked Paul, who puts on the uniform and becomes Elf Bernie for the day, for some details of preparation of the volunteer elves.

As evidence that nothing is left to chance, he told me the elves are advised on how to play their roles convincingly, being told to choose an elf name and "make certain your elf character fits you and get comfortable in your new identity."
The elves' prepping includes knowing how to answer questions from the children. For example, if asked what their jobs is, they say "I fix broken toys, using toy tools," and if asked how old they are, to say "I am 438 this year which is still young for an Elf."

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.

The North Pole, where Santa and Mrs. Clause, real reindeer and a full complement of elves await, is actually a hanger on the other side of the airport. The ownership of the hanger has changed three times but each new owner has quickly joined the event. 
"Honestly, Spokane is the North Pole and we have an airline that is passionate about serving this adventure," said Paul, with his perpetual enthusiasm on display.
"You know, Mike, it feels like this is what I am supposed to do," he said. "It's not like I must force myself or convince myself to work on this. There's no regret of other things I could be doing. I'm both proud and very humbled. The donors fund and support us to ensure we have an amazing event each year. The volunteers literally crawl over each other to get selected to do their duty."

Paul added: "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."
"I always believe in amazing and impossible things," he added.
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Spokane deserves a role in Washington Redskins' look back on key anniversary

The Washington Redskins kicked off the celebration of the 80th anniversary of their NFL franchise this summer with a two-month Thank You Tour that brought players, coaches, cheerleaders and personnel to pre-season pep rallies across Redskins' fans land. Spokane obviously wasn't one of the stops on the tour, but somehow the Inland Northwest's unique tie to the Redskins should be remembered. In fact, it's a bit amusing that the Redskins owners are celebrating the birth of the franchise 80 years ago - in Boston -- when it was 75 years ago, the Diamond Jubilee, that the franchise re-located to Washington, D.C. It was with that move to the Nation's Capital that the Spokane chapter in Redskins history began when owner George Preston Marshall hired Ray Flaherty, then ending his playing career as a star end for the New York Giants, as the new team's new coach. The Giants had drafted Flaherty more than a decade earlier after his college career at Gonzaga, a virtually unknown little Jesuit school in Spokane. Flaherty launched his coaching career in style for that 1937 season, bringing the Redskins and their new city the franchise's first NFL title as they defeated George Halas' Chicago Bears on a frozen field, 28-21. Over the next six years, until World War II interrupted his coaching career and he joined the Navy, Flaherty was perhaps the most successful NFL coach of his time, winning two national titles and making it to the title game on two other occasions, posting a 56-23-3 record. Only Halas, whose Bears' 73-0 victory over the Redskins in the 1940 title game was the worst championship-game drubbing in NFL history, might have been viewed as Flaherty's equal. The prestige and power of being a prominent professional football coach never made Flaherty forget his Spokane roots as he returned home each off season to visit with and be lobbied by old friends about the latest Gonzaga football star. Thus each year, Flaherty drafted the top Gonzaga backfield star, creating the improbable result that a world championship pro football team (the 1942 Redskins squad) would have three of its backs from a little college in Spokane, including brothers Ray and Cecil Hare. On occasion, the Hares were starters. And Flaherty even brought the entire team West in 1939 in what was likely the first coast-to-coast training trip as the redskins held their training camp at what was then Eastern State Normal School (now Eastern Washington University) in Cheney, just southwest of Spokane. Gonzaga itself, which was among a host of tiny private colleges that in the '20s and '30s nursed the illusion of being the next Notre Dame, discontinued college football with the outbreak of World War II. Thus things like the Redskins-Flaherty connection are the kinds of memories important to keep alive for a lot of Bulldog fans, aware that before there was basketball at Gonzaga, there was a degree of prominence on the football field. But it wasn't just the Gonzaga connection that is a part of the Inland Northwest's tie to Washington Redskins, for 50 years after Flaherty arrived in Washington, the Redskins drafted a Washington State University quarterback named Mark Ripien. Ripien, who was born in Calgary but grew up in Spokane, starred for the Cougars in Pullman. But in the pro ranks he became one of the NFL's most feared quarterbacks and guided the Redskins to a 37-24 Super Bowl victory over Buffalo in 1991, being named the game's Most Valuable Player after passing for 292 yards and two touchdowns. Both Flaherty and Ripien are in the Redskins' Hall of Fame. In an interview with Flaherty in 1968, I asked how it was that the player generally regarded as the best to come out of Gonzaga, Tony Canadeo, eluded Flaherty to become a Green Bay Packer. Canadeo, who earned the nickname "The Gray Ghost of Gonzaga" because of his prematurely gray hair, became the first Packer to rush for more than 1,000 yards (1,052) in 1949, only the third player in the NFL to that time to achieve that mark. Flaherty recalled that he intended to have Canadeo on the Redskins' roster, but figured as a player from a tiny school in Spokane, that Canadeo would still be available in later rounds of the draft and he could use his early picks for other players. "I tried my darndest to talk the Packers out of Canadeo," Flaherty recalled in the interview. "But they seemed pretty suspicious about why I was so anxious to have him so decided to keep him. I had a lot of trouble with the Spokane folks over the fact I failed to get him." Descendants of Flaherty and the Hare brothers, as well as others whose ancestors were part of Gonzaga football, and Ripien and his family and a whole cadre of WSU football fans, would be more than enthusiastic participants if the Redskins should come up with an event to recognize the franchise's Spokane tie.
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