Sunday, December 06, 2015

Despite fog delay, present-filled planes bring Christmas to more than 5,100 foster children: Oakland County International Airport (KPTK), Pontiac, Waterford Township, Michigan

A fog delay in the Detroit area Saturday morning didn't keep Megan Henriksen from bringing Christmas cheer to hundreds of foster children in Grand Rapids.

The Forest Hills Central High School varsity volleyball player helped unload wrapped gifts through Child and Family Services of Michigan's Operation Good Cheer on Saturday, Dec. 5.

"These kids are important to our future and our community, if one toy makes their day, then it's a great thing to do," the 16-year-old said.

On Saturday morning, legions of present-filled airplanes departed Oakland County International Airport and soared to local airports throughout the state, including Gerald R. Ford Presidential Airport. Volunteers from Lutheran Social Services of Michigan in Grand Rapids transferred the gifts from the planes to U-Haul trucks, which transported them to the organization's Fulton Street office.

More than a dozen girls from the Forest Hills Central's freshmen, junior varsity and varsity volleyball teams were also signed on to unload the gifts, according to volleyball coach Natalie Roelfzema. However, many of the girls ran into schedule conflicts when they learned the planes were delayed for nearly five hours due to intense fog in Detroit.

"A handful of girls offered to come today and help with anything that was needed if we were still sorting gifts," Roelfzema said Sunday morning, Dec. 6.

The first plane, which was scheduled to arrive sometime Saturday morning, arrived in Grand Rapids early afternoon followed by five planes a few hours later. The last of the planes – 13 in all – arrived around 9 Saturday night.

Despite the fog delay, volunteers were determined to bring Christmas cheer to over 200 local foster children.

"It was a phenomenal day with hundreds of gifts for our kids in Grand Rapids," said Laura Mitchell, director of West Michigan Child and Family, a program of Lutheran Social Services.

Mitchell, Roelfzema and Henriksen – along with additional LSSM and Teamster Horsemen Motorcycle Association volunteers -- helped organize more than 650 presents for 200 foster children in Grand Rapids.

"Receiving a gift is always exciting – no matter if it's big or small," said Roelfzema, a local licensing supervisor at Lutheran Social Services. "Just to see these kids' faces light up when they discover that these are gifts for them."

Operation Good Cheer is an annual gift-giving program of Child and Family Services of Michigan Inc. All of the recipients currently live in foster care homes, group homes or residential treatment facilities. Many of them have been removed from their homes due to abuse or neglect, according to Mitchell.

Each child in the program creates a "wish list" with six gift ideas that they would like for Christmas. Donors purchase and wrap gifts from the individual's wish list, before being transported to the Oakland County International Airport.

More than 16,180 gifts were sorted and distributed to 24 airports and various ground destinations throughout Michigan. This year, each of the 5,394 children and youth sponsored by Operation Good Cheer will receive three to four presents just in time for Christmas.

"These planes are truly packed with gifts wrapped and ready for these children," Mitchell said. "We really shower our children with gifts and embrace our children at Christmastime."

Lutheran Social Services of Michigan is among 68 statewide social service agencies that participated in this year's Operation Good Cheer.

"The holidays are especially hard for children in foster care because they are away from their parents and siblings," Mitchell said. "We do this to support the children in foster care who are not able to spend time with their own family."

Story and photo gallery:

Dan Homolek, left, 29, of Plymouth, and Ben Tubbs, 24, of Milan, load bicycles into the rear of this Phenom 300 jet.

Waterford Township — For Marlene Kelly, delivering gifts to less fortunate children is her own version Christmas morning.

Kelly joined her boyfriend, Gary Read, on Saturday at Oakland County International Airport to load dozens of holiday gifts into his five-seater 1967 Beech Bonanza as part of a program that delivers holiday gifts to foster children across Michigan.

“When we land some of the kids are out there,” said Kelly, 55, of Shelby Township, who is headed to Muskegon. “Seeing the excitement on their faces, it’s like Christmas morning for us. That’s a big joy.”

The pair are among about 200 pilots who are expected to fly out to 24 different Michigan airports Saturday to deliver 16,182 gifts for 5,394 children from flight and ground distribution as part of the annual Operation Good Cheer program.

In its 44th year, the effort sponsored by Child and Family Services of Michigan Inc., is a volunteer-based project that delivers gifts to foster care children in Michigan who have been victims of abuse, neglect and abandonment.

Agencies volunteer to participate in the program and identify donors to buy at least three gifts for each child from a wish list that includes each child’s name, age and interests. Gifts range from toys to books, clothes, bicycles and electronics and are purchased by about 270 individuals, families and corporations.

The program is for children ranging in age from birth to 18 enrolled in the foster care program or placed in residential facilities, says Sherry Brackenwagen, administrative director of Child and Family Services of Michigan.

“The foster parents they do a great job of providing a safe environment for the kids,” she said. “A lot of them have their own children and when it comes to the holidays sometimes there’s just not enough to go around. That’s why we’ve started this program.”

On Friday, volunteers spent the day picking up, transporting and sorting gifts.

Brackenwagen said some of the children will receive their gifts Saturday. Others may be presented with them during a holiday party or have them delivered to homes in time for Christmas Day.

Many of the children, Brackenwagen said, show their appreciation by sending thank you notes to the organizations and pilots.

“These children, some of them find it hard to believe that there are people who really do care for them,” she added. “They never had a Christmas before.”

Pilots Ron and Nancy Walters, both 70, of Royal Oak have been participating in the program for more than 15 years.

The Walters learned of the program because it’s where they store their red, white and blue Beechcraft Bonanza. On Saturday morning, the pair was outfitted in Santa hats, waiting for their destination assignment.

“It’s kind of a way to give back. It makes you feel good, no question about it,” Ron Walters said, adding each year they adopt two children and purchase gifts. “It gives us a chance to help some kids that probably don’t have a lot of great days in their life.”

Story and photo gallery:

Volunteer ground marshal Ken "Viper" Talant, of Utica, guides this Beechcraft 1900D twin-engine airplane, owned by Meijer, as it taxis before takeoff to deliver gifts to Muskegon.

This Beechcraft 1900D twin-engine airplane, owned by Meijer, takes off to deliver gifts to Muskegon as another plane taxis.

Civil Air Patrol senior member flight officer Noah Koehler, right, 18, of Milford, hands a gift to co-pilot Don Weaver, left, of Midland, as he packs his Cirrus SR22 single-engine airplane.

These pilots prepare to taxi their airplane.

This airplane gets up to speed as it takes off to deliver holiday gifts.

Marie Brown, 23, of Grand Rapids, rearranges gifts on the tarmac.

Kirsten Reid, 10, of Clarkston, helps load gifts into a Phenom 300 jet. Hundreds of volunteers donate their time as approximately 200 pilots were to deliver more than 16,000 holiday gifts to 5,394 kids across Michigan during Operation Good Cheer at the Oakland County International Airport in Waterford Twp., Saturday, December 5, 2015.

Abbey Calderwood, 12, of Ada, MI, looks out the window of this Beechcraft 1900D twin-engine airplane, owned by Meijer, as she and her family prepare to deliver gifts to Muskegon.

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