The North Pole Doesn’t Have To Be So Far Away

Air Wisconsin joins with Lehigh Valley International Airport’s return of its “North Pole Express” for families with children battling cancer.

Over the weekend, Air Wisconsin had the chance to be the aircraft used in Lehigh Valley International Airport’s return of its “North Pole Express” for families with children battling cancer. The Pediatric Cancer Foundation of Lehigh Valley Inc. provided this charity flight experience to 14 families from the area after taking a two-year break due to COVID-19.

We were proud to be able to supply both aircraft and crew for the flight, with an added meaningful touch, First Officer Ryan Melendez is a Leukemia survivor himself. Melendez was asked what being a part of this experience meant to him, he said “This experience is extra special to me, as I was diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia at the age of 17. The thing that motivated me most when I was going thru treatment at the children’s hospital was seeing all the kids younger than me going through that same thing I was, but with big smiles on their faces as they ran up and down the halls of the pediatric oncology floor. It is very exciting to me to have this opportunity to be the pilot of the North Pole flight and to give this experience to such well deserving warriors.” Ryan was able to beat cancer and is now living his dream of being a pilot at an airline, with hopes to keep pushing himself and his career to new limits.

 Melendez knows just how special this day is for these kids who are often stuck within a hospital for a lot of the holiday season and he had this encouraging message for them “I want to tell them that they truly are the strongest individuals in this world, and though they may not understand it at this moment, one day they will look back and realize there is nothing too big in life that they cannot accomplish if they put their minds to it. I’d also tell them that this is just a small roadblock in their lives to be, and how important it is to try and find the positives in any situation, even where it may seem like there is none. As strange as it sounds, I am grateful that I had cancer, because it allowed me to do things in life that before I never would have thought was possible. Cancer is the reason that I am a pilot today, the reason I was compelled to start a non-profit organization which has raised over $500,000 for pediatric cancer research, and most importantly, cancer is the reason why I never take any second for granted and live my life to the fullest day in and day out. 

The crew of flight attendants were all aware of the privilege of being able to bring this experience to these children. Flight attendant Hope Frank said “We should all feel joy. Life is about wonder and magic. I am happy to bring a spark of magic to the children and their families!”

One of the other flight attendants on crew for the North Pole flight was Gino Hoffman, who’s heart for children and families really gave him appreciation for the event that day. Hoffman said, “I feel honored to be part of this flight. I come from a large family, and I am a Dad myself. I have fostered and adopted over 10 children and have 22 nieces and nephews. Family is the most important facet of my life. Helping children has been a calling of mine because I have always believed that Children’s needs should come before our own as adults. Some are not able to help for various reasons but for those of us that are, Children can know they have trusted adult allies to help them through the good and difficult times, whatever they may be faced with. As a foster parent, I have experienced so many scenarios with children that have experienced trauma including life-threatening illnesses. At the end of the day, their difficult journey is one no child should go at alone. It takes a village. Most importantly, seeing the smile on their faces during the Holiday season brings me happiness. I remember how happy I was as a young boy this time of year and would have only dreamed of the opportunity to go to the “North Pole”. Sometimes it’s the little things for kids that bring them joy.”

            The in-air experience for the children and their families was carefully crafted by the crew with safety regulated decorations in the cabin and special holiday treats, chocolate covered pretzels, organic snack options, holiday items and Air Wisconsin swag. There were also children’s Christmas song booklets to sing along to carols, Santa hats and jingle bells, and more for all to have a fun time! The flight attendant crew was in holiday sweaters and Santa hats in lieu of traditional uniforms. The children will also receive a Christmas poem written for them on how aircraft 471 saved Christmas.

The flight went off without a hitch and each child was given a memory they won’t soon forget. Flight attendant Barb Bognar said it best “It is an honor to find a way to make these kids smile. I think moments like this remind me of how precious life is and to enjoy every moment.”

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