It was a top-secret mission 8,000 meters in the air and a Christmas party like no other – one with a very special guest list.
On Dec. 9, around 100 children with life-threatening illnesses and their families were invited by the Children’s Wish Foundation and Air Transat to fly to the ‘North Pole,’ track down Santa, and bring him back to Vancouver.
For the young flyers, this was a chance for their dream of flying toward the North Pole to take flight and to take their minds off of illness, treatment and hospitals for one magical Christmas party above the clouds.
The Adventure Begins on Ground
Bright and early on Wednesday morning, I left the Fraser Valley and headed for the Vancouver International Airport to join this brave bunch of adventurers of all ages.
Once inside, it wouldn’t take long to find out which direction to head– all I had to do was follow all the excited young children, who were smiling ear-to-ear, urging their parents to hurry along.
The scene at the Air Transat check-in counter, which included a large group of carolers and a few cheerful elves, was something like out of my favourite holiday movie, Love Actually. But it turns out that it was just a little taste of what was to come next.
The Passengers Get Ready for Their Mission
After going through the check-in process, I had the pleasure of crossing paths with a dapper little gentleman named Logyn, 5, from Delta. He was joined by his big sister, Bronwyn, 8 and mother, Kirstin – they would be boarding the same plane that afternoon.
“I’m so excited… Santa is coming on the plane!” said Logyn, while holding his mom’s hand. His big brown eyes were wide like saucers, sparkling with anticipation.
One wouldn’t know it by looking at him, but Logyn has logged countless hours at the BC Children’s Hospital – his mom informed me that he has been diagnosed with chronic kidney disease and is waiting for a transplant.
“He thought we were going to the hospital today for treatment, but we surprised him,” said Kirstin, noting that it would be his first time on a plane.
“I told him we were just making a stop to go to the bathroom.”
Over at the departure gate, an elaborate festive scene awaited the families, complete with goodies, crafting stations, face painting, a magic show, princesses and more. There was also no shortage of media coverage, including local TV personalites, journalists and local bloggers.
While the impending flight was the highlight for most event attendees, Tranveer,9, was especially eager to meet with Santa Claus for the first time.
“He’s very excited to see him,” said his mother Navdeep, while standing beside her son’s wheelchair.
His younger sister, Manveer, 7, was also proud to accompany her brother, who was born with Muscular Dystrophy.
Both siblings were short on words, but not on smiles as they waited patiently to meet the chubby bearded guy in the red suit.
Before it was time to board the plane, Air Transat representatives presented a cheque to the Children’s Wish Foundation of Canada for $143,082, which was raised this past year as part of Air Transat’s Small Change, Big Hearts program.
Amidst the holiday hustle and bustle at the airport and all the smiling children, it was easy to forget the gravity of the situation. However, the child-size vacant wheelchairs parked just outside the plane served as a reminder of the real meaning behind this incredible flight.
Once on the plane, Santa’s elves and a troupe of entertainers welcomed us onboard to our seats – each chair had and a songbook with Christmas carols waiting for us to crack open.
Up, Up and Away!
The captain announced that we’d need to sing loud and proud in order for our adventure to take flight.
Somewhere amidst the giggles and a rendition of Santa Claus is Coming to Town, we were up, up and away.
When we reached an altitude of 8,000 meters, Santa made his appearance, handing out gifts to the wide-eyed children.
I was assigned a very special seat – right next to Princess Aurora, who I’d discover also goes by the name Danica Marining or Miss Marining to her split Grade 2/3 classroom in North Vancouver.
A Royal Guest
“This is my third time on this mission,” noted Marining, a 27-year-old teacher who started a side business with a group of friends called Princess Visits Vancouver.
The group has been volunteering their royal duties with the Children’s Wish Foundation for the past three years – an experience that Marining says has opened her eyes to the heartache and struggles that the families go through on an ongoing basis.
“ I have seen the difference of what an event like this can do for a family. It’s about bringing these families together who are going through similar experiences… it’s about letting them know they’re not alone.”
After around 90 minutes in the air, it was time to head back to reality.
While a single event or flight isn’t going to cure an illness, it’s a hearty dose of Christmas cheer – and for many – a very special memory to cherish. I know I’ll never forget it.
A huge thank you to Air Transat and the Children’s Wish Foundation for the blogging adventure of a lifetime.
The Children’s Wish Foundation is a uniquely Canadian charity that has been helping Canadian children, families and communities by granting the favourite wish of a child diagnosed with a life-threatening illness since 1984. To make a donation or learn more about this non-profit organization, visit www.childrenswish.ca.