AKWESASNE TERRITORY – There were tears, cheers and smiles from ear-to-ear on the morning of Nov. 2 as eight children from Akwesasne and Kahnawa:ke waved goodbye to their families and walked up the steps to their awaiting airplane, beginning their unforgettable all expenses paid trip to Walt Disney World.
The children, along with more than one hundred others from ages seven to 11 from Quebec, were selected to take part in Canada’s Dreams Take Flight, a charity and volunteer organization that brings children with life challenges on a trip to Walt Disney World, via a private Air Canada jet donated by the airline. It was a group of Air Canada employees who created the charity organization years ago in Toronto, and flights expanded to cities across Canada.
Akwesasne’s children – Meesha Sylvester, Ruckus Gray, Iehrakwas Peters, and Memphis Johnson Thompson – were included on the flight thanks to a gracious offer from Kahnawa:ke. Kahnawa:ke has been connected to the charity by a community member of theirs – Ken Bourque – who is a former Air Canada employee. Kahnawa:ke has been participating in Dreams Take Flight for 14 years, and this year, with just a few weeks to go before takeoff, the charity organization said there was going to be a bigger plane and they would be able to include more children.
Kahnawa:ke Chief Bobby Patton contacted Mohawk Council of Akwesasne Chief April Adams-Phillips, Chief Troy Thompson and Chief Tim Thompson with an invitation for Akwesasne children to participate. The chiefs worked with the Akwesasne Child & Family Services to identify children who fit the criteria and the families with the assistance of ACFS staff rushed to complete all of the necessary paperwork and medical exams. It was a team effort that Akwesasne was very glad to have been a part of.
The Akwesasne and Kahnawa:ke children arrived at the Montreal airport together with their families, ACFS staff and chiefs from both communities at around 5 a.m. the morning their adventure was to begin. After registering, they entered an airplane hangar that was buzzing with excitement as volunteers held a going away celebration that was an adventure in its own. Firemen, pilots, and police all had their trucks, planes and cars on display, and characters danced and hugged the children – some of whom were jumping up and down with anticipation.
“A week before they called to invite him, he had said he really wanted to go to Walt Disney World,” said Ruckus Gray’s aunt Maddie Johnson. Ruckus was unable to contain his happiness and excitement in the airport hangar, as he repeatedly looked around at all the action, at the big plane waiting outside, and hugging his family member out of pure joy. He clutched a Disney autograph book and went over the characters’ names on the cover.
Ronkwas Peters said her daughter, Iehrakwas, has always wanted to go to Disney World and that she had been researching the rides especially.
“It was hard keeping it a secret from her for 10 days and her face was incredible when she found out,” Ronkwas said. “What was harder was how she turned around and said ‘Later!’ and got right on the plane!”
Doctors, nurses, aides, pilots and dozens of other volunteers take the trip with the children, flying them to Orlando, Florida where they are taken to Walt Disney’s Magic Kingdom for a day of magical fun, skipping all the lines for rides and food, spending free vouchers in the Disney gift shops, and being treated like royalty by the Dreams Take Flight team.
After a very long day, the children are flown home the same night. The Montreal crew arrived back at about midnight Wednesday, delivering some tired but elated children back home with stories and memories to last for a lifetime.
“ACFS felt privileged to be able to help co-ordinate this trip for four children from our community”, said ACFS Program Manager Rae Cook. “I would like to commend our staff who worked quickly and as a team to ensure that these children would be able to participate in this exciting opportunity. We would also like to thank the Mohawk Council of Kahnawa:ke for including Akwesasne in this initiative.”
Dreams Take Flight targets children who have never been to Walt Disney World or any Disney owned theme park and who have socially, physically or mentally challenged backgrounds.
“We are thankful to the Mohawk Council of Kahnawa:ke for sharing such a great opportunity with us,” said Chief April Adams-Phillips. “I know our kids had an amazing trip that they were well deserving to have … we are proud that our positive ties with MCK lead to such a rewarding experience for the children and us as well. Words can’t describe the emotions in the airport hangar that morning. It was just incredible how many caring people there were making this all possible.”
Katie Cook, an ACFS Caseworker, travelled to the airport along with Case Worker Neomie Diagostino to help send the children off.
“We are fortunate in ACFS to be able to work with children all the time, and to see them as excited as they were was a very rewarding moment in my career,” Cook said.
Recently, Kahnawa:ke chiefs and Akwesasne Chief Troy Thompson travelled to Standing Rock together, organizing an Akwesasne-Kahnawa:ke coat drive for Standing Rock upon their return, and pledging to have more joint ventures.
“We are an hour away from each other so both of our communities could benefit from us having more shared projects and initiatives,” Chief Troy Thompson said. “Pooling resources, ideas, and partnerships can have amazing outcomes, just as we learned with Dreams Take Flight.”