Christmas arrives by plane for Mich. foster care children

Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News

Waterford Township — Fourteen-year-old Simone is spending her holidays this year with a foster family since state officials removed her from her home. When she wakes up on Christmas morning, Simone hoped to open some gifts that included a hoodie, some lotions, a journal and pen.

Volunteer Cindy Romeos, 58, of Waterford, prepares to help load these bicycles onto planes for delivery. She volunteers in the memory of her son, Christopher Dean Katranis, who died nine years ago at age 21.

That’s all that Kathy Nolen knew about the young girl she bought gifts for when she bought her most of the items on her list, along with sweaters, shirts, sweat pants, legging, nail polish, adult coloring books and more.

Nolen knew what Simone wanted because she was among 5,733 Michigan foster children who made a wish list that was passed onto donors through a program known as Operation Good Cheer.

On Saturday, dozens of volunteer pilots loaded planes with wrapped gifts, bicycles, electronics and more at the Oakland International Airport. They were then flown to 25 regional airports across Michigan, where they were distributed to representatives from social service agencies, the foster children and their families. In all, 270 individuals, families and companies donated 17,200 gifts to children across the state.

“It just breaks my heart when I read about why children are in foster care,” said Nolen, who’s been participating in the program since she was a child. “Children shouldn’t have to go through that. I just want (Simone) to know that we care about her, and we hope she has a bright future.”

Now in its 45th year, the program is aimed partly to support families that take in foster children because often they have their own children and sometimes there aren’t enough resources to give the same amount of gifts to everyone, said Sherry Brackenwagen, administrative director of Children and Family Services of Michigan, which oversees Operation Good Cheer.

“It makes the children just like other children,” Brackenwagen said. “It makes them feel like they belong. We get thank you notes from the children, who can’t believe people cared enough to give them gifts. Some of them have really gone through some bad things and they can’t believe people would give them something, even though they don’t know them.”

Among the pilots who volunteered was Stan Politowicz, and his co-pilot, Bill Patrick. The friends, from Commerce Township, provided gifts for 12children with their local chapter of the Knights of Columbus. But they also flew gifts for dozens of other children to an airport near Big Rapids.

“These kids are in foster care because of abuse, neglect, drugs, violence,” said Politowicz, who’s volunteered for the program for six years. “If it wasn’t for this program, these kids may not get Christmas presents at all. If we can improve the life of one kid, we’ve done good.”

What’s more, Politowicz said it’s a heartwarming way to start the holiday season.

“One year, a child said to me,’Mr. Pilot, are you Santa Claus?’”