Photo: Stephanie Lake Photography
Amalia Guerrero woke up today with a huge smile on her face—because she knew she was going to meet Santa Claus. The seven-year old, who has spent two years battling acute lymphoblastic leukemia, not only wanted to ask for an American Girl doll for Christmas—she wanted to know why Santa still gives presents to the naughty kids. “They shouldn’t get presents if they’re on the naughty list!!”
Amalia, her sister and parents were one of hundreds of families that took to the skies today as part of the Air Transat/Children’s Wish Foundation Flights in Search of Santa. Now in its thirteenth year, the day gives kids who are often in and out of hospitals for terminal illnesses a special visit with the Big Man himself. After Amalia was diagnosed when she was two years old, the family went through rounds of chemotherapy and radiation; Helen and Max administered at-home chemo drugs as well. Now cancer-free for a year, the family counts every healthy day as a blessing, but days like today as touchstones. “This replaces the memories of hospitals and needles and being hooked up to machines. Today creates new memories that our children will always remember,” says Amalia’s mom Helen Maria Guererro.
The special flights left Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver and Paris, France and traveled to the “North Pole” (the flight circles in the sky looking for Santa.) In Toronto, families were greeted at Pearson International Airport by a fleet of elves with names like Sparkle and Peppermint handing out stickers and candy canes; beloved movie characters Elsa, Belle and Jack Sparrow read books and offered hugs before boarding and a brass band played Christmas carols, getting everyone dancing.
“Its such a magical day for us,” says Children’s Wish Foundation CEO Chris Kotsopoulos. “When a child is diagnosed with a life-threatening illness, the life of the entire family is affected. Families are often broken up—one parent is at the hospital caring for the sick child, the other is keeping things going at home. Today, we bring them together and provide a little break creating wonderful memories and holiday magic to cherish.”
Jessica Davis, whose daughter Hayden is now in remission for neuroblastoma, a rare form of cancer, said her daughter finds comfort being around other families like hers. “It’s nice to have days like this after treatment—you don’t get that time back,” she says.
Before boarding the plane, Air Transat presented Children’s Wish Foundation with a cheque for $116,000, the amount collected over the past year as part of the carrier’s Small Change, Big Hearts program, where they collect loose change from passengers at the end of flights and other initiatives. Children’s Wish Foundation recently granted its 25,000 wish, and grants approximately three wishes each day throughout the year.
On board, Captain Matthew Jackson announced over the PA “Welcome to the Polar Express: Bound for the North Pole.” He told the children they would be travel at warp speed to get to the North Pole and was in contact with NORAD and to keep an eye out for Santa—who favours the left side of the plane “because the heart is on the left side!” After commotion from the front of the plane, he announced that they had made contact with Santa and he was coming on board. Santa emerged to squeals and made his way through the cabin, talking to every child and asking for their Christmas wish.
“I fly a lot of special people around,” said Jackson, after the flight. “This is a little more of a special day.”