CEDAR CITY – Twenty privately owned small planes touched down in Cedar City Tuesday before the sun even began to warm the tarmac at Sphere One Aviation Inc., where some three tons, or 6,000 pounds, of gifts and supplies donated for school children were unloaded.
Cedar City Mayor Maile Wilson and Councilmen John Black and Don Marchant were there to greet each of the early morning pilots who were all volunteers with Angel Flight West – a charity that provides free air travel to families in need of medical care that is inaccessible in their region.
The gifts were then conveyed by the Utah National Guard to Three Peaks Elementary School, which serves Enoch City, for the students and their families this holiday season.
Presents weren’t the only thing volunteers brought on the “Santa Flight”; both Santa and Mrs. Claus, along with two of their industrious elves, came to visit with the eager elementary children as well.
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Videocast by Melissa Anderson, St. George News and KCSG
As the planes landed one-by-one, nine uniformed members of the 222 Field Artillery Battalion unloaded each of the 20 planes and packed all of the goodies into a light medium tactical vehicle for transport to the school. Floor to ceiling, front to back, the entire cavity of the military truck was packed like Tetris, leaving no room to spare.
Cedar City’s mayor even got in on the action, helping unload several of the planes with the soldiers with little care or worry about somehow ruining her beautiful white coat.
“This is so exciting,” she said. “Just the idea that all of these are going to elementary school children here in our community is amazing.”
Sphere One supplied the venue and gave discounted fuel prices to all of the pilots who volunteered. As an added bonus, the company fed breakfast and lunch to everyone who came out to help, and made sure there was plenty of hot coffee and hot chocolate on hand for participants to fight off the winter chill.
As the morning wore on, and the nip in the air began to dissipate, planes carrying toys, jackets, blankets, clothes, books, school supplies and just about anything else one could imagine, just kept on coming. One load after another, after another, until eventually the tarmac was completely lined with the tiny aircraft.
“We still weren’t able to get it all here, (so) we’re driving that down later,” said Josh Olson, Angel Flight West executive director. There were a lot of donations that had to be left behind, he said, because the 20 planes that transported them were not enough.
The gifts came from northern and Southern Utah, all gathered by nine tenacious young men working to earn their Eagle Scout badge. Hailing from Draper, Salt Lake City’s Sugar House community, Bountiful and Cedar City, the boys said they acquired the massive pile of donations by going to local churches and businesses, as well as asking family, friends and neighbors to pitch in towards the cause.
Becky Loescher, Three Peaks PTA president, was at the airport when the packages were being unloaded from the planes and put into the back of the LMTV. She said it was overwhelming to see the pile continue to multiply, and she was a little unsure of whether or not their storage would be big enough to house it all.
“We have a storage room that we are going to put it in, and hopefully it will all fit,” she said. “But then it’s the PTA’s job to go through it all, so we’ve got a big task ahead of us.”
When Angel Flight West first contacted the school they asked for a “wish list,” she said, so that the scouts could focus their collections towards the specific needs of the students at Three Peaks Elementary. Needs which have since been met exponentially. In addition to the in-kind donations-of-plenty, Loescher said that there were also cash donations that the title I school would be able to use as needed.
Joanne Brattain, Angel Flight West outreach coordinator for the Utah wing, said the additional funds totaled $4,700, and every penny of that funding would be able to be used at the school’s discretion based on the needs of their students.
This is the second year that Santa flight has come to Cedar City, Brattain said. Last year they went to East Elementary because it is also a Title I school in the area.
“What we do is pick a Title I school within the state of Utah, and we partner with the Boy Scouts, the Boy Scouts use it as an Eagle project, and then we provide the air lift,” she said. “Since I’ve been involved we’ve gone to Delta, we’ve gone to Richfield, we’ve gone to Monroe, last year we went to East here in Cedar and this year we’re going to Three Peaks.”
Year after year, she said, the overwhelming nature of the giving is a remarkable sight – one that causes her heart to swell with emotion.
This year, however, took the annual event a step further by flying Santa and the gang in a helicopter to the elementary school playground field where nearly 600 students hungrily awaited their arrival.
“I had tears in my eyes when the helicopter landed, because it was just so special for all of those children,” Three Peaks Principal Paula Burgoyne said.
An assembly for the students was quickly underway and, while the captivated children sang songs about Rudolph and Christmas joy – eyes fixated on jolly ol’ St. Nick – the Triple Deuce snuck a truckload-of-wonder through the front doors of the school without a single student noticing.
Santa Flights began 13 years ago as a way to transport in eye glasses to out-of-the-way reservations that were inaccessible during winter, Angel Flight West’s Utah Wing Leader Tim Miller said. It all began at a dinner two weeks before Christmas in 2001 when a fellow Angel Flight pilot had invited him to dinner.
“One of the scientists from the University of Utah had, every year, been collecting used eyeglasses all year long, and then once a year she took them down to the Navajo children in San Juan County,” he said.
That year, it was decided that Angel flight would not only help fly in the much needed eyewear and doctors, but they would collect gifts for the children in the community to help with their holiday as well. So it was that Santa Flight was born.
The program evolved through the years into what it is today, Miller said, adding and changing little things here and there until they finally got the formula right.
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