a peek inside the fishbowl

16 Oct, 2009

When dreams take flight

Posted by andrea tomkins in: Easy ways to make kids happy|travel talk|Yaktivism

It’s been a busy week, to say the least. My body is working overtime to fight off a cold and I’m tired and sore and heavily medicated and really wishing I had a laptop so I could tap this out in the cozy comfort of my bed. Gah! 

Ok. The Disney post. Where to begin? (You will excuse me if this comes out all spacey, right?)

A few months ago I received an email from a local charitable organization called Dreams Take Flight (DTF). DTF takes local children on a one day trip (yes one day!) of a lifetime to Disney World in Orlando. This year the roster included 115 special needs children and approximately 80 volunteers. I was invited to come along as part of the media contingent.

DTF volunteers consist almost entirely Air Canada employees, their friends and families as well as some of the major sponsors. I attended a volunteer orientation back in September and got to meet some of the volunteers and watch the children and their parents as they met their group leaders. This was a very special group of people coming together for the first time.

I was emailed a list of the children who were chosen for the trip. Their stories, summarized in short paragraphs (written by the agencies that nominated each one), were very touching.

Here are some snippets. I’ve **’d out the names to protect their privacy.

*** is a child diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder. I have nominated *** due to the social, communication and behavioural challenges that autism presents to this child and his family. Due to the high needs of his disability and financial constraints, his family are unable to take him on trips and long vacations. A trip to Disneyworld is a great opportunity to enhance his social and communication skills. He is a child who absolutely loves Disney movies and recites phrases from the characters throughout the day. It would be a delight to see the look on his face when he arrives at the Magic Kingdom.

 

*** has no parents in the picture. He is being raised by his grandmother and they do not have money for extras. He has anxiety and he also has ADD. He is involved with local social agencies to help him with his social skills. He has trouble learning at school but despite all of this he is managing. This trip would be a dream of a lifetime for him.

 

*** comes from a family of 6 children and the 7th on the way. Parents are just making ends meet.

 

*** is a delightful little girl who lives with her 70 and 73 year old grandparents who adopted her when she was a couple of months old as her mother was unfit to care for this child – *** truly deserves a day of fun.

 

*** is globally challenged. He has a seizure disorder which is currently managed successfully with medication. He has a single underdeveloped kidney, is an ostomate with a feeding tube and a central line. He will be travelling with his school nurse *** who has known him for 4 years. *** is normally limited to exposure to entertainment due to the complexity of his care. This will be a chance of a lifetime for *** at something so totally unattainable in normal circumstances.

These are kids who have hurdles they’re fighting to overcome – physical, mental, social, financial – and wouldn’t otherwise have the chance to experience a bit of Disney magic.

The volunteer staff of Dreams Take Flight totally blew me away. This kind of trip requires months of planning and fundraising. They are good people, remarkable people. Their dedication, their energy … they love what they do and it shows. I saw it on orientation day and I saw it at the airport the morning of the trip, even though we were all groggy and freezing and sleep deprived.

The trip took place Wednesday. I was up before my alarm went off (at 2:00 a.m.!) after hovering between a state of sleep and wakefulness for about four hours. At 3:25 a.m., one of the PR team picked me up in a cab, we picked up another person and made our way to hangar 11. (To expedite our trip we weren’t travelling through the actual airport – we were going to board a special Air Canada plane parked on the tarmac.)

We froze our tails off about an hour before we boarded (thank god for coffee!) and despite the ungodly hour, everyone was bubbling with excitement.

And then there was the unveiling of the aircraft, a countdown which revealed this:

Hangar 11 - Ottawa 

About to board

I cannot describe the joy and excitement and anticipation on these kids faces. Amazing!

I should mention that only the kids (and volunteers) get to go to Disney. The parents stay home. I think this makes their experience extra special, because it becomes the child’s very own special memory, independent of their parents.

We boarded hurriedly into warmth. A lucky few got to travel first class:

Boarding
 
We had breakfast on the plane (and ice cream!) and although it would have been a great opportunity to have a cat nap no one did. After all, who could possibly sleep at a time like this?

We arrived, landed, and deplaned right on the tarmac in Orlando.

It was like walking into a sauna. Hey, I’m not complaining.

On the tarmac in Orlando

We boarded some buses, drove to the parking lot at Magic Kingdom, and caught the ferry:

Boarding the ferry to the Magic Kingdom

I think a lot of us were in a state of disbelief. To start the day in dark and frozen Ottawa? And then find yourself gazing across sparkling waters? Craziness.

thoughtful

Our first destination was Splash Mountain. NO ONE HAD ANY FUN AT ALL. (Just kidding):

Splashdown at Splash Mountain

Splash Mountain

I think I went on this ride three times (or was it four?). Group leaders were under strict orders to go with the wishes of the children. If the kids wanted to go on the same ride five times in a row, they’d go on the ride five times in a row.

Just to add to the excitement, we even got stuck at the top of the hill – for about 20 minutes:

This is where we got stuck

Thankfully, no one lost their cool. Not even squirrely little me.

We had a buffet lunch at Crystal Palace – which I totally recommend.

waiting for lunch at the Crystal Palace

It was a wonderful luxury to dine in this air-conditioned splendor. And the food was amazing. The kids had a hoot, loading their plates and then getting autographs from the various characters in attendance. (I heard later that one of the kids tried to take Piglet’s head off. And I saw Eeyore accidentally scare the pants off a toddler sitting nearby. Poor Eeyore felt really bad about that.)

I had a fantastic lunch. I happened to get seated at the same table as Derick Fage, one of the hosts of Rogers Daytime, as well as a fellow who turned out to be one of our pilots. I was so glad to be there with such a fabulous group of people.

The day went by really quickly. We went on a bunch of rides and did lots of people watching … and bird-watching as well. Those Florida birds are a bold and comical bunch:

snackin' bird

bird is the word

I floated around with different groups, settling with one later on in the day.

A bunch of us shared a funny moment at Splash Mountain. Someone was checking his Blackberry, just quietly reading his messages when he suddenly shouted IT’S SNOWING IN OTTAWA! There was a big cheer and much laughter from our group while the other people in line looked a little puzzled at our sudden outburst. Snowing? In Ottawa? Hilarious.

There were a few hiccups, which is to be expected when you’re travelling with so many people, but overall the whole day ran like a well-oiled machine. We had the added benefit of some super fast group fast-passes. We never waited more than five or ten minutes for any ride, which was perfect given our serious time limitations.

Speaking of rides, here is my ultimate fave photo of the day:

First time driver?

Hee hee. Don’t you love it?

Anyway. Soon it was time to leave the rides behind:

Cinderella's castle at the Magic Kingdom

… although we still had time to shop and gather our energy for the trek back home.

Disney World was tricked out for Halloween. So neat!

Main Street USA

What a day.

It does my heart good to know that organizations like Dreams Take Flight are out there, working hard to give children an opportunity to forget about their doctors, nurses, and troubled backgrounds, even if it’s just for one day.

Events like these don’t happen by themselves. Volunteer power and corporate sponsors are a critical part of this journey. Air Canada is one of the major sponsors. Every year they donate use of the aircraft. And the Air Canada flight crew works the flight and then hits the ground along with everyone else, floating around to where they were needed. And they were just as happy to be there as everyone else. 

There are a lot of other sponsors too, including Giant Tiger, Dell, Dairy Queen … and more I’m not remembering. It’s an expensive undertaking. Fundraising has to cover park admission, other transportation costs, food and beverages, hats, t-shirts and even spending money for the children so they can buy Disney souvenirs.

Yay for sponsors! You’ve made a difference to many people, like this little girl:

Waiting for lunch at the Crystal Palace

The trip home was uneventful. Most kids slept on the plane. I felt like a mess (I wish I’d had the foresight to bring a clean t-shirt and a change of socks!) but managed to catch a few winks.

The plane landed in Ottawa sometime after midnight (I totally lost track of time by this point) and we got off the plane, back into the cold. Talk about a rude awakening! We entered the front door of the hangar and walked towards to the back. And here is the memory that will always stay with me (I’m welling up as I type this). There was a red carpet, and the red carpet led to a double sliding door which was open. I was one of the first people off the plane. I walked along the carpet only to look up and see a sea of faces, hundreds of parents peering in towards all of us arrivals, leaning forward eagerly in search of their kids.

What a wonderful thing. Although it’s the photo that got away I will always have it stored away *up here,* you know what I mean?

Thank you DTF, for inviting me to be part of this special journey and to share this experience with you and the children who needed it most. I will always remember it.


15 Responses to "When dreams take flight"

1 | Kelly

October 16th, 2009 at 3:21 pm

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Thanks for the post Andrea! We all really enjoyed having you with us on the trip. It was a magical day!

Kelly

2 | Nadine C.

October 16th, 2009 at 3:37 pm

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Wow ! The expressions on those young faces are worth a thousand words.! What an incredible organization and such a wonderful experience for these kids. I imagine that this trip must have felt kind of “surreel” to fly to Disney and back in a day (something Peter Pan would approve of !).

3 | Joy

October 16th, 2009 at 3:39 pm

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Beautiful – these kids will carry these memories with them for the rest of their lives!!

4 | BeachMama

October 16th, 2009 at 3:48 pm

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Oh Andrea, what a special day. I am glad you got to share in the day so we could hear all about the behind the scenes. May you get the opportunity to do it again next year.

Hope you are feeling better.

5 | lacoop

October 16th, 2009 at 4:47 pm

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Great story. It is so nice to see so many people helping to bring some joy into the lives of people who need and deserve it. This will keep a smile on my face for a while.

6 | Susan

October 16th, 2009 at 4:53 pm

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What an inspiring organization, and what an impressive feat to pull all that off in one day! Get well soon, Andrea :-)

7 | Chantal

October 16th, 2009 at 7:00 pm

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what a wonderful experience for you. I am all teary just reading about it. These kids are all so deserving. It is wonderful to hear about them getting such a special treat.

8 | The Veg Next Door

October 16th, 2009 at 7:04 pm

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What a wonderful and humbling experience. Disney is a magical place and every child deserves to experience that sense of wonder and fun. It’s great that such organizations exist and volunteers are able to make it happen.

9 | Loukia

October 16th, 2009 at 7:10 pm

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OH wow, what an experience, Andrea! What a great organization that is. Those children are so deserving… I’m so happy they got that experience! And so glad you got to go experience that too, even though, wow 24 hours there and back! No kidding you’re fighting off a cold now! Those first class seats look awesome!

10 | Brie

October 16th, 2009 at 7:20 pm

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That sound samazing. What a wonderful organization. I am sure the kids enjoyed it even more than you did. :-)

11 | Laura

October 16th, 2009 at 9:01 pm

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Disney is a magical place – what a great story. Your pictures capture so much. I will remember that organization in the future, they are doing great work. Feel better soon. Excellent post. Thanks, Laura

12 | Ginger

October 17th, 2009 at 9:20 am

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Wow. It is organizations like this who do truly wonderful things that renews your faith that there really is so much good out there in the world. There are so many people who do the right thing…who bring joy to those who need it most. What an amazing adventure for those children! Thank you for sharing it with us.

13 | Rebecca

October 17th, 2009 at 12:17 pm

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sounds like a great trip and a great organization

14 | DaniGirl

October 17th, 2009 at 12:32 pm

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I read about the trip this morning in the Citizen, in an account written by one of the volunteers. What an amazing organization — do they take donations from the general public to support them? Definitely the experience of a lifetime, for those kids and for you.

15 | Scattered Mom

October 18th, 2009 at 10:47 am

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I work with special needs kids, and it’s seeing their faces when they get to experience something special that I remember most.

Glad you had such a wonderful time!

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The Obligatory Blurb

My name is Andrea and I live in the Westboro area of Ottawa with my husband Mark and our dog Piper who is kind of a big deal on Instagram. We also have two human daughters: Emma (20) and Sarah (18). During the day I work as a writer at The Royal Ottawa Mental Health Centre. I am a longtime Ottawa blogger and I've occupied this little corner of the WWW since 1999. The Fishbowl is my whiteboard, water cooler, and journal, all rolled into one. I'm passionate about healthy living, arts and culture, family travel, great gear, good food, and sharing the best of Ottawa for families. I also love vegetables, photography, gadgets, and great design.

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