MILWAUKEE - Elves lined the hallway as families arrived Dec. 13 to pick up their Santa Liner boarding passes. Christmas music played in the background and tinsel and lights draped the ceilings. As the children rounded the corner to the small air terminal, smiles beamed across their faces ó Mrs. Claus was waiting for them. These children were about to take a ride of their lives to the North Pole.
The 128th Air Refueling Wing hosted the 30th annual Flight to the North Pole, an event for children battling life-threatening illnesses to take a special ride to the North Pole.
Twenty-one families of children who are patients at the Children's Hospital of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, came to the 128th Air Refueling Wing to take their child on a magical ride aboard a KC-135R Stratotanker. Pilots with the 128th taxied them around the General Mitchell airfield to a hangar that was specially decorated as the North Pole.
Military and civilian volunteers from several organizations throughout the local community joined the 128th Air Refueling Wing to support the holiday flight of fancy: the U.S. Coast Guard, Sector Great Lakes; Cudahy Police Department; and the city of Milwaukee Fire Department. Close to 90 independent civilian volunteers helped coordinate and work at the event.
"The Milwaukee Fire Department is traditionally about taking care of the people in our community, and this is just another way for us to demonstrate that we really do care about the people in our community," said Lt. Edward Schott, a fire lieutenant paramedic with the Milwaukee Fire Department.
Schott attended with his full engine crew on Fire Engine 26. The Milwaukee Fire Department has participated in the Flight to the North Pole for five years. The fire engines from the 128th Air Refueling Wing and Fire Engine 26 escorted the bus full of children to the aircraft that took them to the North Pole. The firefighters offered tours and rides in the fire engines to children who attended the event.
"It's not my duty ó it's my pleasure to be here," Schott said. "And to be honest, if this doesn't put you in the Christmas spirit, nothing will."
Once the children arrived at the "North Pole" hangar they played games, watched a magic show and enjoyed a meal with their families. Local businesses made the day special by contributing food, beverages, and gifts.
Finally it was time for Santa and Mrs. Claus to visit with the children and ask what they wanted for Christmas. All of the children at the event, to include siblings of the patients, received a gift from Santa.
The organizers of Flight to the North Pole try to make the event special for everyone in the family. It is a time to take the focus off of the children's illnesses and to let them enjoy an early Christmas with their loved ones.
"The social work department and the oncology department of Children's work very closely together to bring families out here for the past 30 years," said Paula Thompson, a medical social worker at Children's Hospital of Wisconsin.
Thompson has helped organize this event from nearly the beginning.
"My personal opinion is that we are very indebted to the 128th and to the other organizers," she said.
The 128th Air Refueling Wing, Children's Hospital of Wisconsin and all of the volunteers plan to continue this event next year and for many years to come.