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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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A mission of bringing Magic of Christmas to homeless kids with Alaska North Pole flight

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' 

e.

 

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 in plane
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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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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Spokane's 'North Pole' flight for poor kids attracting attention from other cities

The annual Fantasy Flight to the "North Pole" that Alaska Airlines makes possible each year for 60 disadvantaged Spokane-area kids and their personal elves is now attracting the attention of other cities who might like to create similar events, possibly in partnership with Alaska.

 

The children, selected from programs for homeless and underprivileged kids in the Spokane and Coeur d'Alene areas, board Alaska Airlines "flight 1225," designated "Santa One," Saturday at Spokane International Airport.

 

This is the fifth year Alaska has operated the flight in Spokane for Northwest North Pole Adventures (NNPA), a 501c3 created and overseen by Steve Paul, president, CEO and executive director. He's a software executive who spends much of the year preparing for, agonizing over funding for,and carrying off the event, where at trip time he's better known as "Bernie" the Head Elf.

 

Steve's headshot
Steve Paul, event creator as 
head elf "Bernie" 

Alaska made the flight unique when it took over from United Airlines after that airline was unable to make a jetliner available in December of 2008. Though a number of airlines around the country, actually around the world, have been engaged in such Christmas Season flights since even before Alaska got involved, it was Alaska employees who asked: "why can't we take the kids up in the air?"

 

Thus it was that Alaska was the first to actually fly away, taking the kids to "the North Pole."

Brad Tilden
 Brad Tilden, Alaska Air CEO 

United now has North Pole adventures, for children with serious illnesses, that take to the air from both Los Angeles and San Francisco for flights around California that land back at the airport from which they departed. Other airlines doing "flights" that mostly involve taxiing around the airport with window shades down are Continental, American and Southwest.

 

Elsewhere in the world, kids are carried aloft by British Airways in Scotland and Aerolineas Argentinas, which conducts fantasy flights between Buenos Aires' two main airports.

 

Recognition for the Spokane event got broader last year thanks to coverage by Seattle's KCPQ-TV, which actually also did a program on it for CNN as well as its own regular news coverage. That greater visibility is providing both relief and opportunity for Paul.

 

"This is the first that I am not panicking about funding as the event nears," he said in an interview. He's attracted a number of local sponsors at various levels and has a cash-and-in-kind budget this year of just under $200,000.

kids in plane
Kids awaiting takeoff for 'North Pole'

The key in-kind, of course, is Alaska's participation, a role that has been low key from the outset in 2008.

 

"Alaska has never pressed for any visibility," Paul noted. "They are just happy to be great philanthropists for this project, though many of Alaska's employees consider this a high point of their year." As many as 30 Alaska and Horizon Air employees will participate this year, though more sought to volunteer.

 

"Alaska wants to do things for the right reasons and visibility is typically not high on the list of right reasons," says Alaska's new chairman and CEO, Brad Tilden. "But it's not that we need to be secretive about something we're very proud of supporting the event and many others who are involved, including many of our employees."

 

And as a new CEO, he brings his own sense of expanding upon this event by being open to seeing something similar develop in other Alaska cities.

 

"We'd be happy to help in other cities," Tilden told me in an email exchange. "I think Steve and his team put in an unbelievable amount of work to bring this event alive, and we'd have to make sure we have a group in another city that is onboard with all of this."

 

"But again, I'm very open to the idea," he added.

 

"Seattle would like to have a similar Fantasy Flight for kids but the challenge is how to scale it," Paul notes. "They'd need a facility, sponsors and community support behind the idea."

 

"We could easily do a Seattle one, bringing kids from there to Spokane to have the same experience our kids do, then fly back home.," he adds.

 

"A lot of people have said we should take this on the road," Paul notes. "I could do that if I could get people to define their non-profit or if our organization were to expand. But this is not some casual party. A lot of planning and time is involved."

 

Among the Alaska-served cities where such Fantasy Flights don't yet occur, in addition to Seattle and Portland, are San Diego, Orange County and the Palm Springs area.

 

The Spokane flight has priority status with the FAA once it's loaded and ready to fly and "Santa One" comes up on the screen. Then the flight's own personal air traffic controller takes over, Paul said. "It becomes just like Air Force One in that respect."

 

"When we send out invitations to the kids, we have them give us a wish list of what they want for Christmas," Paul explained to me in an interview for a column on him I did a year ago.  

 

"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."

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Alaska Air's 'Santa One' flight for Spokane area disadvantaged kids is unique fantasy trip

Sixty disadvantaged kids and their personal elves board  Alaska Airlines' flight 1225, dubbed  "Santa One," Dec. 10 at Spokane International Airport for a Fantasy Flight to "the North Pole" on the 737 900 and a visit with Santa. It's an event that could be described as the place where the real magic dust of Christmas has been scattered, because this special trip is unique in the world.

 

The children, between the ages of 4 and 10, are selected from programs for homeless and underprivileged kids in the Spokane and Coeur d'Alene, ID, areas for this once-in-a-lifetime fantasy adventure to Santa's home.

 
 

A number of other airlines, including United and Continental, have been doing the North Pole "flights" in various cities, some for nearly 20 years. But Alaska is the only airline to actually take the kids aloft for their magical trip, in which they pull the window shades down as the flight nears its conclusion, say the magic words that allow them to land at the North Pole, and land at other side of Spokane International Airport.

 

It's there that they're greeted by Santa and Mrs. Clause and an additional host of elves.

 
 

 

"When we send out invitations to the kids, we have them give us a wish list of what they want for Christmas," explains "Bernie" the Head Elf, better known as

Steve Paul, president and CEO of Northwest North Pole Adventures, the nonprofit group that runs the event.

 

 "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," adds Paul "The looks on their faces as he hands it to them is priceless."

 

To ensure that the selection is actually reaching the most deserving children, Paul's non-profit 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.

 

The children are picked up at the Spokane YWCA in the early afternoon and driven to the airport, where each child is given a "passport" to the North Pole and a personal "elf" catering to every need, including a backpack filled with school supplies. Then they board the plane, designated Flight 1225.

 

The flight has priority status with the FAA once it's loaded and ready to fly and "Santa One" comes up on the screen. Then the flight's own personal air traffic controller takes over, Paul said.  "It becomes just like Air Force One in that respect."

 

Paul is an out-of-work tech exec who has made the project his special commitment. As a result of his efforts, what he describes as "the 150 percent support of the community" and the Alaska involvement, the adventure for the Spokane children is brought closer to reality than in any other place.

 

He spends a number of months in preparation for the big day, lining up donations and contributions that this year amount to $150,000 of cash and in-kind, helping get the kids selected and arranging for the elves and gifts for the kids.

 

Brad Tilton, Alaska Airlines president who will be on hand with his wife for the event, says "the Fantasy Flight is an unforgettable experience for everyone involved. It's a

true delight for the children, who don't get to enjoy Christmas like most of us do and who, in many cases, have never had the chance to fly. And our employees,

who eagerly volunteer every year, get far more back than the time they put in."

 

Alaska and Horizon will have more than four dozen employees participating, from various locations on the airlines' systems. Some will be elves. Others will forego days off to work shifts for local Horizon employees so they can be elves.

 

This has been an amazingly off-the-radar-screen event, both during the eight years that United put the kids on a plane that taxied around the airport, and in the four years since Alaska Airlines came to the rescue of the event when United couldn't free up a plane with Alaska proceeding to turn it into a real airborne flight.

 

But that low visibility is changing as the list of kids registered and waiting has grown to almost 250 and media organizations have started to become aware of this special Christmas Season story. And there are some in the Alaska Airlines organization who understand the one-of-a-kind goodwill that this event represents, particularly because neither the company nor the employees has done this for the sake of visibility.

 

Horizon's Spokane customer service manager David Burris admits the visibility has been low key over the years, partly because broader visibility would only bring pressure to make the event bigger.

 

Is there an opportunity for other cities to follow suit with a special North Pole event?  Alaska officials suggest it would be difficult for the airline to take another plane and crew out of regular service during the heavy-travel holiday time. And Paul acknowledges that while he could provide the know-how to another community, he wouldn't have time to actually do another event over the Christmas season.

 

"A lot of people have said we should take this on the road," Paul notes. "I could do that if I could get people to define their non-profit or if our organization were to expand. But this is not some casual party. A lot of planning and time is involved."

 

Paul adds that he is having a movie done "that will in the future characterize the experience. We have a couple of elves who were parents of foster children involved in earlier flights who said the kids were so transformed by the experience that they had to get involved."

 

How real is this trip to the kids? As one elf put it: "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 doubt that you have landed at the real North Pole? And then you see Santa."

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