Six sleeps and counting.
For seven-year-old Serenity Craigie-Manson of Penticton and about 80 other special kids from the Interior, that’s all the time remaining before boarding the Alaska Airlines jet which will whisk them away to the Magic Kingdom in southern California.
Through the Sunshine Foundation of Canada’s Dreamlift to Disney program, kids between the ages of three and 18, challenged by severe physical disabilities or life-threatening illnesses, get to enjoy the adventure of a lifetime during an emotional, fun-filled day at the park.
“Pooh and roller coaster,” said Serenity when asked what she was looking forward to the most. “And the plane, it’s my first time.”
The jet is to depart Kelowna International Airport at 6 a.m. Tuesday, arriving to a hero’s welcome in Anaheim three hours later.
At John Wayne International Airport they will meet up with the members of the Orange County Sheriff’s Department who will be their special guides for the day.
RCMP members dressed in traditional red serge will also be on the ground to greet them.
Last week, McNicoll Park Middle School hosted a party for Serenity and some of the other youngsters who will be going this year.
There they had a chance to hear a little bit about the trip and talk to some of the kids who had been on previous Dreamlifts.
“It was just a fantastic trip and I’m so glad I had a chance to go,” said Chase Moog, 13, who went on the 2009 sojourn. “I’m going to tell the people who are going on this trip to just relax, have fun and meet new people.”
However, for him, the best part was just being with others who have challenges of their own.
“You could just meet the kids on the trip and know about them because everyone there had a problem and so they were the same as you basically,” he said. “It made it a lot more relaxing and a lot more fun, you could just enjoy yourself and not worry about what other people were doing or saying.”
His friend, Drew Boileau, was also on that trip and agreed: “It was really good to be with the other kids who had problems because we all knew what we were going through and it’s really important to just be able to put all that aside even for just one day.”
Both expressed their gratitude to Wendy’s Restaurants and the Sunshine Foundation for giving them an opportunity they would not have otherwise had.
Lynn Langille a vision resource teacher who works with Serenity and other vision-impaired students in the district, has noticed the difference the day makes in the kids’ lives.
“When they come back, they’re a little bit empowered because they’ve had this amazing experience of going to the most magical place on Earth,” said Langille, who will be going again this year. “They want to share it, so they often do a presentation for their classrooms or their schools and it just gives them that chance to feel special in a different way, a real positive way.
“They do know they’re different and often these kids are the only ones at their school who have a disability and they feel isolated, but not on this day.”
She pointed out there is a comfort level between peers with similar disabilities without the pressure of always trying to keep up with the others.
And there is the added bonus of seeing them in a setting other than the class environment.
“We get to learn about daily life things that we maybe need to assist them with when we get back,” said the instructor. “Or we get to see exactly the opposite, the things that we didn’t know they were capable of doing.”
This will be the fifth trip since John Tietzen of Inland Restaurants, which operates the nine Interior Wendy’s, began the project in 1995.
In the initial year, just over $10,000 was raised and it has since grown into one of the most successful campaigns of its kind in Canada, having brought in nearly a million dollars.
On that day, the salaries of Wendy’s staff, management and owners along with proceeds from the sales are donated to the cause.
Many celebrities and local dignitaries as well Orange County Sheriffs, B.C. Ambulance, RCMP and fire department members also help out at the restaurants.
Tietzen recently received the Wayne C. Dunn Spirit of Service Award from the Sunshine Foundation, however, he was quick to direct the praise to the volunteers, restaurant employees (past and present) and management.
“We have given people at a young age the opportunity to learn what giving back is all about,” said the owner. “Our staff, along with the people who patiently wait in line on Dreamlift Day, are helping people they don’t even know.”
People like Serenity, who is excitedly awaiting that one more sleep Monday night.