Anaheim, Cal. – A day of magic at the happiest place on earth became a lifetime of memories Wednesday for those on board the DreamLift to Disneyland adventure.
Arriving for departure at Kelowna International Airport about 4:30 a.m. the 72 adrenaline-charged kids with sleepy-eyed volunteers in tow couldn’t wait to be seated on the Alaska Airlines Boeing 737 parked outside on the cold, wet tarmac.
Once on board the plane, all eyes were facing south and the cheers erupted as the wheels lifted off the runway and blue skies replaced the clouds.
The Sunshine Foundation based in London, Ont. has recently teamed up with Papa John’s International Inc. to make the special trip possible for kids with severe disabilities or life-threatening illness.
Under most circumstances putting something like this together would be a logistical nightmare, but the dedicated work of large, very skilled contingent of volunteers makes dreams come true for kids who would not otherwise have the opportunity.
The group includes a wide range of medical personnel, including two volunteer emergency physicians, a number of nurses and other health professionals.
One of those special kids on board was 10-year-old Megan Donesley of Okanagan Falls who has severe cerebral palsy.
When she was carried off the plane after it arrived at John Wayne International Airport in Anaheim she was in some distress, with tears coming down her cheeks.
But that changed when her bus arrived at the gates of the Magic Kingdom.
Once inside things got even better when she got to see the Disney street performers, including the traditional characters, from the front row.
When Goofy came over and stood in front of her, she was unable to contain her joy, the smile stretching from ear to ear.
“This has just made Megan so happy and we had such a wonderful time,” said Mary Ellen Everatt, executive director of the Kamloops’ Children Family Therapy who was accompanying Megan. “She got to see everything she wanted to see, It’s a Small World, Winnie the Pooh, and oh, of course, the princesses.
“There you go, she just said it, she said, “it’s incredible.”
Parker Hough, 15, of Westwold probably described the kids’ experiences best.
“It’s Disney, the magic,” he said. “When I found out I was going it was like winning a lottery, one in a million.”
Wyatt Schmidt of Kelowna, who enjoyed the Space Mountain ride the best added: “This was wonderful they did something so special for us. I won’t forget it.”
The volunteers-to-kids ratio was more than two to one and included people like Katy Cox of Penticton, a repeat volunteer.
“It’s a wonderful day to give them the time of their life to say yes to them and let them have this experience,” said Cox, an occupational therapist for School District 67. “We’re all exhausted but it was well worth it.
Vernon physiotherapist Cindy Ecclestone was on her first trip with one of her clients, Tyler MacFarlane of Coldstream.
“I had a fantastic time, I usually see Tyler once a week and it’s just been so great to spend the whole day with him,” she said. “I’m just so appreciative of everything the organizers have done. What a great job.”
As always, the Orange County Sheriffs were out in full force, going above and beyond the call of duty to make the trip a success, which meant putting smiles on faces.
“I think we get more out of it than the kids do, it’s just a way for us to kind of say thank you and it makes you appreciate what you have,” said sheriff Calvin Silva. “These kids are so brave and all the stuff they go through just to be here.
“So it’s very humbling, for me at least, to be able to work with these kids and we’re just very thankful that they make the trip and I just don’t know what else to say.
“That just makes my day.”
The sheriffs also played a big role in this year’s success after mother nature threw a curve ball at the event.
Just as everyone was on the plane to leave, fog rolled in, shutting down the airport. With the help of the department, which included a two-car, police escort to LAX an hour away, everyone was able to return on a replacement aircraft with only a brief delay.
At about 6:30 a.m. Thursday the plane touched down in Kelowna and the kids arrived home to a tearful welcome from their anxiously waiting family members.
“This is definitely one for the books and I’ll never forget it,” said one volunteer heading out the airport doors.