“Joy” and “hope” are feelings rarely experienced by children who are forced to spend significant amounts of time in the hospital due to chronic illness or significant injury. But local non-profit organization Above the Clouds is out to change all that, through a close partnership with Floating Hospital for Children at Tufts Medical Center. Above the Clouds’ “Dream Flyers” program provides pediatric patients between the ages of six and 18 the opportunity to temporarily leave their medical life challenges behind and experience the freedom and exhilaration of co-piloting a small airplane.
Above the Clouds was founded earlier this year by Gary Oberstein, a licensed pilot and managing partner of Nixon Peabody LLP’s Boston office. Oberstein’s love of flying inspired him to start a charity to provide a once-in-a-lifetime adventure to sick, injured and disadvantaged children. Thanks to a friendship with Tufts MC Senior Vice President, Secretary and General Counsel Jeffrey Weinstein, Oberstein collaborated with Floating Hospital for Children to be Above the Clouds’ primary Dream Flyers referral source. Planning for the program - which included assembling a team of 13 highly-qualified volunteer pilots - began in fall, 2102, and the first Floating Hospital patient’s Dream Flight took place in early May of this year. As the liaison between Above the Clouds and Floating Hospital patients and families, Director of Child Life Andrea Pappaconstantinou is in charge of identifying the best candidates for the flights, then connecting the patient and family with the charity organization.
“It’s very important for us to be sure that all our patients and families understand how the program works,” said Pappaconstantinou. “We take each patient’s individual situation and personality into consideration and talk with each family and child to explain everything that will happen with the flight. While the Dream Flights are amazing experiences for many kids, we understand that they are not appropriate for everyone.”
A Unique Experience
It’s Above the Clouds’ goal to make each Dream Flight a special, memorable event, tailored to each individual child. A few weeks prior to the flight, each child is connected with a “Flight Coordinator,” who provides information on the pilot, plane, and flight day logistics, to calm any nerves and create excitement and anticipation. When the child arrives at Norwood Memorial Airport on the day of their flight, they are greeted by welcome signs and balloons at the airport entrance. Dream Flyers also receive a private tour of the airport control tower, a pilot’s jacket with their name monogrammed on it, aviator sunglasses, and a post-flight celebration with family and friends.
But the real highlight of the day is the 30-45 minute flight. Each flight is different; the child determines the flight path and locations – whether over their house, their school, Fenway Park, etc. – depending on wherever the Dream Flyer is interested in going or whatever they are interested in seeing. The child sits in the cockpit as the co-pilot for the duration of the flight, and is allowed to turn the plane and feel it move. Each plane is equipped with cameras to document the flights, so the Dream Flyers will always be able to remember their experience.
“The sense of feeling like they are flying the plane themselves really makes these children who have very little control over their lives feel like they are in control of something,” said Pappaconstantinou. “It’s a very unique and powerful experience that not many kids get to have. The flight also gives the kids something to look forward to for weeks in advance and to tell friends and family about for months and years after.”
Spreading its Wings
In just its first few months of operation, Above the Clouds has flown or scheduled Dream Flights for about a dozen Floating Hospital patients and close to 20 children in all. Oberstein hopes to continue to grow and expand the program in the coming years. His goal is to have 30 children become Dream Flyers in Above the Clouds’ second year of operation and to increase that number to 50 in year three.
“It’s wonderful to be able to give back in a very direct way to kids who badly need a diversion from the monotony of checkups, medical tests and hospitalizations,” said Oberstein. “The best part is seeing the sheer, pure joy on their faces. It makes me feel on top of the world and I am very blessed to have the ability to do it. It’s a spectacular thing to spread joy. It’s a medicine to dozens and dozens of kids and I truly believe it can help in their recovery. And we’re only just getting started!”