6-year-old from East Lansing joins other children with life-threatening illnesses and the Silverliners for a Delta flight to the North Pole to meet Santa. Lauren Abdel-Razzaq
Romulus — The pilot's voice came over the intercom as he informed the plane full of gleeful children that Santa was ready and waiting to see them.
"They've cleared us for takeoff. They've moved all the reindeer off the runway. We're going to the North Pole."
About 60 children with life-threatening illnesses made the trip to meet Santa Claus Friday during a fantasy flight with an itinerary straight out of a child's imagination.
Hop onto a real Delta plane and taxi out on a runway at Detroit Metro Airport. Make a remarkably quick "supersonic" flight to the North Pole. Run off the plane and into Santa's arms, to be showered with presents and goodies by his helpers and elves.
"This will tear you up because it just makes your heart fill with joy," said Madge McGoorty, the main organizer of the Fantasy Flight to the North Pole and a member of the Silverliners, a non-profit group of retired Eastern Air Lines flight attendants. They've been arranging the annual trip for 29 years; over the years, the event has grown to include children from six area hospitals.
"They are so happy and their parents are happy. They forget about hospitals, they forget about medicine and tests," said McGoorty. "That's what it's all about, to give them joy."
Mark Patterson and his daughter, Alana Dyess, 7, were among those who made the trip to the North Pole. Patterson said he was glad to take part in the event for the first time.
"You want the kids to stay innocent and be a part of this as long as possible," said Patterson.
It's been a difficult year for the family. Alana was diagnosed with cancer in July and his wife died in August. It's their first Christmas in their new reality.
"Thankfully, they caught it early so Alana has a real fighting chance," said Patterson. "We're trying to have as much fun as we can under the circumstances."
Alana asked Santa for a Cool Baker cake maker, even though she wasn't quite so sure about the authenticity of her surroundings.
"I'm not sure this is really the North Pole," she said during the party at Santa's place. "I don't know if that's actually Santa's castle."
The key to it, just like with fighting a childhood disease, is to mix practicality with a little belief. The fact that the Westin Hotel on the North Pole looked exactly the same as the Westin at the Detroit Metro Airport didn't faze most of the kids, who were far more interested in the giant bags of toys, Legos, puzzles, games and teddy bears they were given.
Santa, who is known as airport field maintenance worker Bill Neelsen when it's not Christmas season, was a hit with the children, opening his arms and bringing them in for a hug before inviting them for a party with sweets and presents.
Neelsen, who is a professional Santa and clown, first worked with the Silverliners 12 years ago. In the beginning, he saw that the children weren't getting presents, so he took it upon himself to solicit and purchase gifts. Now, his work has grown to the point where the children leave with more presents than they can carry.
And although the day's events couldn't change the circumstances for the children, it did give them a day of pure happiness and provide parents and caretakers with some worry-free moments and memories.
"It's just been amazing," said Tammi Carr, whose son, Chad, 4, was one of the children on the flight. "At his age, he thinks he's at the North Pole."
Chad, the grandson of former University of Michigan football coach Lloyd Carr, was diagnosed with a brain tumor in September. Since then, his mom said, it's been a constant stream of doctors' visits, hospitals and tests.
"It's a chance to get away from the hospitals and doctors," said Carr. "Being able to see him smile and laugh, when your kid is sick, as a parent that's all you want."