The first weekend of December is marked on many pilots’ calendars every year in Michigan. That’s when Operation Good Cheer takes off.
General aviation pilots join hundreds of other volunteers to ensure that children in foster care have a merry Christmas.
This year, Operation Good Cheer delivered at least three gifts to 6,453 children — that’s 19,360 gifts, according to Sherry Brackenwagen, Administrative Director of Children and Family Services of Michigan.
The effort began in 1971 with just 66 children. Over the past 46 years, more than 92,700 kids have had their Christmas wishes come true as a result of Operation Good Cheer and its volunteers.
Groups and individuals purchase and wrap Christmas gifts from a child’s “Wish List.” The gifts are picked up at collection sites by volunteer trucking companies, who then drive the gifts to airports, where volunteer pilots deliver them to agencies across the state that work with foster children.
Some of the agencies have an annual Christmas party, where Santa delivers the gifts to the boys and girls. In more rural parts of the state, case workers take the gifts to each foster home, where the foster parents can put them under the tree on Christmas morning for the kids.
Getting those gifts means “everything” to these children, according to Brackenwagen.
“A lot of times these kids have been removed from their homes and they only have the clothes on their backs,” she said. “We get thank you notes from these kids and they just can’t believe that there are people in this world who care about them, because they’ve never experienced a Christmas before or had people who cared about them.”
Even after 17 years of working with Operation Good Cheer, Brackenwagen says the children’s responses to the gifts pull on her heart.
“It’s amazing to see the generosity of not just the donors but the pilots and the volunteers, and all the people who look forward to the first weekend in December,” she said. “Our event takes place the first weekend in December every year and people just automatically have it on their calendars. They cross out their schedules at work so that they are available for that day.”
While final numbers are still being tallied, this year, 246 pilots volunteered, completing about 260 flights to airports around the state.
“We had a record number of pilots and flights,” she said.
And while records were broken as far as pilot volunteers, the agency could still use more.
“We probably could have used another 50 to 60 pilots,” she said. “As our program continues to grow, we definitely will. We were up 800 children this year over last year and times three gifts, that’s almost 2,400 gifts right there.”
There are no minimum flight hour requirements for pilots, just the desire to help. Pilots do have to sign a waiver of liability.
And Operation Good Cheer will take whatever time pilots are willing to give, she said.
“It’s all volunteer, so whatever they’re willing to give is accepted,” she said. “We have some people who are there for 10-hour days, over the course of two days, and then we have other people who come in and just do a four-hour shift and go on because at this time of year, people’s schedules are busy and they have a lot of other things going on.”
Pilots and others who would like to volunteer for next year’s Operation Good Cheer can sign up on the agency’s website.