Pilots play Santa, deliver gifts to Michigan foster kids

Mike Martindale
The Detroit News

Waterford Township — The skies over Oakland County were busy Saturday with an estimated 250 flights by aircraft of all sizes taking off with gifts for foster children across Michigan.

Kimberly Klave loads Christmas gifts into a single-prop aircraft and will take to the skies to deliver them to more than 6,700 children and adults with special needs around Michigan.

It’s called Operation Good Cheer, a unique charitable effort in its 48th year sponsored by the nonprofit Child and Family Services of Michigan.

Since 1971, more than 50,000 children — from infants to adults with disabilities — have received holiday presents with the help of 15,000 volunteers, including 250 pilots donating their time and aircraft to the effort. This year, they planned to reach 6,671 kids.

Volunteers with Operation Good Cheer prepare to load airplanes with 20,000 Christmas gifts to be delivered to more than 6,700 children and adults with special needs around Michigan. Volunteers at Oakland County International Airport will load the gifts into about 260 airplanes for delivery to 29 airports around the state.

“I don’t think there is anything like it anywhere,” said Dean Greenblatt, co-chairman of the effort who is also on the Child and Family Services Board. “I’ve been involved for years and I have to tell you, it's addictive. I feel guilty that it makes me feel so good to be part of something like this.

Aaron Sedine gets help from his daughter Trista while loading his plane with Christmas gifts.

"People aren't doing it because of a reaction to a tragic event," he said. "But because there is something good in people."

Greenblatt is a 53-year-old flight instructor and a Bloomfield Hills lawyer whose firm specializes in aviation law, business litigation and firearms rights.

He credits the late Constantine “Taki” Kortidis, a Ford engineer and flight instructor, with starting the program in 1971 with the purchase and personal delivery of gifts to 66 children.

Trisha Sedine and her sister Taya Sedine dressed as Mrs. Claus and Rudolph as they loaded a plane with Christmas gifts for delivery.

“He thought a few gifts and greeting cards were not adequate to express the true spirit of the holidays,” said Greenblatt. “He went around Ford’s and talked of doing something bigger and people said ‘OK. Here’s some money, see what you can do.’

“He bought some gifts and contacted Child and Family Services, who asked him whether he could also deliver the gifts,” he said. “He had a plane and agreed to do it with stops at a couple airports.”

From that humble beginning, the one-man program — with the expanding help of volunteers, generous donors and corporate sponsors — has broadened over the past four decades to include flights to 29 airports throughout Michigan over a seven-hour period.

This year an estimated 20,313 wrapped gifts were sorted to destinations from a Pentastar Aviation hangar at Oakland International Airport, carefully loaded onto aircraft by volunteers and then flown to airports, where staff and volunteers from 83 participating local social service organizations were to transfer them on to children, most removed from their homes due to abuse, neglect or abandonment, organizers say.

Operation Good Cheer succeeds with the volunteer help of air-traffic controllers, truck drivers, pilots, ground-support staff: all people whose most valued commodity is the generosity to donate their time and ability to help safely time and stagger arrivals and departures in Waterford and across the state.

“This program would not be possible without the thousands of dedicated volunteers wanting to brighten a child’s Christmas,” said Sherry Brackenwagen, director of Child and Family Services.

The individual donors, volunteers, 271 donor groups and corporate sponsors are too lengthy to list but include:

— 31 trucking companies donating transportation services, including trucks and fuel.

— Numerous drivers donating time to transport gifts to the airport from 31 pickup locations.

— A collaboration of pilots using their own aircraft and fuel.

— Donated corporate jets and other aircraft.

And the planes aren’t stuffed with random, generic gifts. Through the public agencies, the recipients submitted “wish lists” of items, which were then purchased and wrapped by donors and volunteers and tagged with the first name of the child. Every child in the program receives at least three gifts, including toys, books, clothes, bikes and electronics.

Brad Pugh and his son Weston, 5,  load Christmas gifts into a twin-prop aircraft.

“We don’t have to solicit volunteers or go begging for the gifts,” said Greenblatt. “And we have pilots from around and outside Michigan wanting to donate their time. Florida. New York. Pennsylvania. Ohio. Flight instructors from four colleges and universities in Michigan.”

Aircraft range from small experimental planes with room for only a couple gifts to the World War II C-47 “Hairless Joe” that was to in from the Yankee Air Museum at Willow Run Airport.

Cody Welch, 67, of Linden planned to fly his 10th Operation Good Cheer mission. Welch, a retired Northwest Airlines pilot who now manages the Linden Airport, removes the seats out of his light twin-engine Beechcraft Baron to use every spare inch of the plane.

“There are a lot of smiles and a lot of joy,” said Welch, who in past years has flown to one airport and returned to Oakland International for a second assignment in the same day.

Welch, like others, never sees the children who will eventually unwrap the gifts. Their delivery accomplished, they might grab a coffee and doughnut, and fly home.

It’s not cheap. Welch figures it costs him about $130 an hour in fuel but says that’s not even a consideration.

Pilot Dick Lawrence gives a thumbs up — Santa style — as he prepares for take off.

Don Weaver, 59, of Midland has been flying since he was 16 years old. An engineer, he was a full-time aviation instructor for 18 years and manages aircraft for a shared ownership. He has been involved in Operation Good Cheer for 15 years.

The payoff of being St. Nick for a few hours? Priceless, he says.

“We’re all playing Santa,” said Weaver. “Flying over Michigan to make the holidays special for foster boys and girls. What could be more fun?

“It’s a cool way to do a charity program,” he said. “Flying across the state in less time than it could be done by truck. It’s like being Santa.”


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