This article was written by AFE volunteer pilot, Gene Cross.
I was a bit dumb-struck when Dominic asked me to write an article for Angel Flight East. It was especially astounding when he asked that I focus on some of the other activities I support beyond Angel Flight. I think he’s trying to give us pilots a better reputation than presented in “Top Gun” or “Those Magnificent Young Men in Their Flying Machines”. I’m certain that neither of those films would characterize any of the Angel Flight pilots I’ve met.
Most of the pilots that I know involved in what is generically known as public benefit flying are safety conscious, serious aviators who are anxious to use their piloting skills to help others in need. Yes, we all enjoy the freedom to fly but we especially want to use skills we have developed to help others.
My wife and I are both cancer survivors for some years now. Neither of us misses an opportunity to encourage or help others going through treatment. We try to provide hope and comfort to those suffering the anxiety through the process of diagnosis, treatment and recovery.
We were very lucky to receive great medical treatment through Walter Reed National Military Medical Center near our home here in Virginia. But imagine that you are in a small town without ready access to one of our nation’s major medical centers. Or that it’s your child that has some rare disease or condition requiring frequent trips to a distant facility. Supporting Angel Flight as one of their volunteer pilots is a way to give back and support those who are struggling.
However, I believe there is a common thread that could weave among all Angel Flight pilots and other support personnel. They tend to be empathetic people that want be engaged in addressing and solving problems. This brings me to the area of another activity that my wife and I support.
About 10 years ago, I was engaged in a project for our church. We were looking for ways to do church work outside the walls of the building. We were concerned that we were too inwardly focused and needed to get involved beyond just taking care of the spiritual needs of the congregation. We began looking around the community for the right connection. As a very small congregation (about 70 on and average Sunday), we needed something doable, sustainable and problem solving. We were lucky to find a non-profit partner looking for a place to do outreach to the homeless in our community. It seemed like a perfect match. We had a place and an interest; they had resources and skills that would support our involvement.
After negotiating some strategic and tactical problems we began a small feeding program on Friday mornings. Free food is always a good draw for hungry people. Outreach workers were available to assist people in contacting needed social and community service providers… shower vouchers, clothes washing, job counseling, housing vouchers, mental health services, substance abuse treatment programs, processing VA and Social Security Benefits.
Each Friday the church fellowship hall became a community center for the homeless and less fortunate citizens in the area to receive a hot meal, contact their support network and leave with a sense of value, hope and a sack lunch.
It took several years for this underserved portion of our population to trust that we were going to be there every Friday and that there would be support and follow through.
From initial beginnings of a couple of dozen guests on a Friday, we have grown to between 100-150 individuals each Friday. More importantly we know that we have addressed many of the core problems. We have been able to obtain a year-round shelter and services center; there are no homeless veterans in the county who want to be housed; over 250 individuals are now in supportive housing who were previously on the street; almost every week I hear about someone with a new or better job. Our non-profit partner has been able to hire a nurse practioner to provide treatment and follow-up care that might otherwise lead to expensive emergency room care.
One individual was on the street for 10 years. After some very intensive effort, we were able to get him engaged with county social services. Working with our non-profit partner he was able to provide the paperwork needed to obtain his Social Security payments and his pension from his long-term employer. Now back on his feet he has been able to reach out to his family who had long thought him dead.
Each week I get to refresh my spirit as I hear the stories of people long marginalized or forgotten. Now they can find some hope in a cup of coffee, a hot meal and connecting with people interested in helping.
I am confident that other pilots will have other stories of how they are engaging in service beyond flying.
It’s that interest in helping, interest in making life better for someone suffering or needing support that is a common thread running through the fabric of all those involved in Angel Flight. Whether they are pilots, support staff, donors or sponsors, each one is part of a community eager to provide aid.
I am reminded of a slogan on the side of a self-serve free food pantry on the side of our church…” Alone I can do little… together we can do much….”. People take what they need and leave what they can.
That’s how I see the various projects I undertake. What skills or resources do I have that would be of value? Is this a worthy project? All Angel Flight pilots will have stories of patients they have transported. All will agree that it is a worthy project to apply skills they have honed over many years and hours of flying.