Pilots, planes wanted to fly gifts to Michigan kids

Charles E. Ramirez
The Detroit News

Pilots with planes are needed to play Santa and fly Christmas gifts to some children in Michigan.

Dan Homolek, left, of Plymouth, and Ben Tubbs, of Milan, load bicycles into the rear of this Phenom 300 jet last year.

The red and white suit isn’t required; Santa hats are optional.

Operation Good Cheer, an annual program that gives Christmas presents to Michigan children in foster care, is short on pilots and aircraft this year, said Dean Greenblatt, a pilot and spokesman for the operation.

“It’s an opportunity for pilots to do something they love and do something charitable at the same time,” he said. “It really is a heartwarming experience.”

Officials said the operation has about half of the 200 pilots it needs to execute its upcoming mission.

Greenblatt, who is also a Bloomfield Hills attorney, said any pilots interested in volunteering for Spirit of Good Cheer Flights should log on to Child and Family Service of Michigan’s website to download an application. He also said volunteers for the mission’s ground crew are also welcome.

The program, which is in its 45th year, is coordinated by Child and Family Services of Michigan Inc. and a group of volunteers. Based in Okemos, the nonprofit also provides post-adoption services and searches for adoptees.

On Friday, hundreds of volunteers will gather at the Pentastar Aviation hangar at the Oakland County International Airport in Waterford Township to help unload about 18,000 wrapped and bagged Christmas presents from trucks and sort them by their intended destination.

Civil Air Patrol senior member flight officer Noah Koehler, right, hands a gift to co-pilot Don Weaver for last year’s Operation Good Cheer.

The next day, Greenblatt and others will be at the hangar to load the gifts into planes, fly them to 25 different airports across the state and deliver the gifts to more than 5,700 Michigan children who are in foster care.

Flights are scheduled to begin taking off at 8 a.m., depending on weather. Volunteers call the program’s plane trips to deliver presents spirit of good cheer flights.

The children who receive gifts in the program are victims of abuse, neglect and abandonment. As part of Operation Good Cheer, the kids submit a wish list and donors are asked to buy each child three items. All donors know about the children is their first names, age and interests.

“It means everything for many of the children,” said Sherry Brackenwagen, Child and Family Services of Michigan’s administrative director. “At this point in their lives, they feel like no one cares. To receive gifts like this, it just means the world to know somebody out there has given so much. They just can’t believe it.”

Don Weaver, a flight instructor who also owns an aircraft management company in Midland, said he plans to fly at least one of Saturday’s flights. He has flown spirit of good cheer flights for the last decade or so.

He encourages other pilots to participate.

“You do it once, and you’ll be back to do it again,” Weaver said. “It’s addictive. It’s just a wonderful way to help these kids out.”