AFW Associate Executive Director Cheri Cimmarrusti reflects on this past year’s Flights of Joy.
For the fourth year in a row, 2023 brought us Flights of Joy. In 2020, with our missions reduced significantly due to the ongoing pandemic, we were looking for a way to get our pilots flying in a way that was safe for everyone involved. Additionally, it occurred to us that many of our passengers and their families might be struggling more than normal because of the economic impact COVID was having on so many people.
Out of that difficult time, our Flights of Joy program was born!
We identified some families with children who might benefit from some extra assistance from “Santa”, checked with them to see if they were interested in participating, and then we recruited volunteers to purchase, wrap, and deliver gifts in their airplanes. During the first year, we had over 30 pilots sign up to serve about 15 families, and each year has brought an increase in participation.
In 2023, 17 families became the recipients of holiday cheer, provided by 57 pilots — nearly double the number of volunteers as our first year! Presents were purchased from wish lists and flown to their destination by volunteers, or Santa’s helpers. As holds true with our regular missions, our pilots felt that they received more than the families! But I know from talking to some of the families that they certainly don’t feel that way.
Several families shared with me early on that, without this program, their kids wouldn’t have had a Christmas. Our phone conversations were tearful on both ends, with families expressing gratitude and staff members listening with humbled hearts.
I could wax on and on about these flights – but instead, I’ll share with you some of the photos and comments our pilots made about how much they enjoyed these special, inspiring missions.
Joe Dowdy says, “These have to be the best missions of the year!”
Peter Wolfgram says, “It was a great day to fly and bring some joy into the hearts of a family that has been through so much. My life problems pale compared to this family. Great kids, very polite, and thankful. Gave each of us a handshake and a thank you. It was very hard to hold back the tears. I have been blessed to have a plane and learn how to fly. But the greatest blessing is to give back to others. I was able to have Madi Eichten, an AFW coordinator living/working in Bozeman, fly along with me. You have a great asset in this young lady. She and I had great conversations about AFW and life in general. This was her first experience with flying in a GA aircraft, so she was able to see first-hand what goes into an AFW flight.”
Paul Oliver says, “Deeply heartfelt meeting this family & being part of this mission.”