Taking off

Expansion, leadership changes at Children’s Flight of Hope.

By Jennifer Whytock

CARY, N.C. — In its first year of operation in 1991, Children’s Flight of Hope flew just one mission.

Now in its 13th year, the group plans to break last year’s record of 55 flights ferrying critically ill or injured children and their families.

Fueling the growth is an increase in fundraising and in-kind gifts in 2003 to $274,000, up 47 percent from the previous year, says Kim Erickson, who until recently served as executive director.

In 2001, the nonprofit hired Erickson, its first full-time paid employee, to improve fundraising, organize flights and spread the word about services it offers to social workers and hospitals along the East Coast.

Taking over for Erickson is Julie Talbert, who was regional director of development for Clearwater, Fla.-based Eckerd Youth Alternatives, a camp program for troubled kids with sites in North Carolina.

Her goal is to expand the nonprofit’s relationship with groups like United Cerebral Palsy, Shriners Hospital and other hospitals, and establish new relationships with other groups, connect with more children who need flights, and expand the nonprofit’s reach.

All flights are free for needy children and their families who require medical treatment out of state, or for those needing to fly into North Carolina for treatment, although the group does not offer emergency ambulance service, accepting only children in stable condition.

The costs absorbed by the nonprofit average $2,000 per flight, including fuel, maintenance, insurance, hangar space and pilot training.

The group owns a twin-engine, 6-seat Piper Navajo aircraft operated by a rotating crew of two volunteer pilots and occasionally another volunteer helping as a flight attendant.

Compared to larger, nationwide flight services like Memphis-based Angel Flight, Children’s Flight of Hope can travel only up to 600 miles from its home base at Raleigh-Durham International Airport, and operates primarily in the Carolinas, Virginia, New York, Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania.

But its board of directors is considering expanding the group’s reach by purchasing a larger aircraft to accommodate children who need to travel further, Erickson says.

A boy in Raleigh who has a brain tumor, for example, needs to fly to Massachusetts General Hospital, beyond 600 miles, so the nonprofit is teaming with another flight service to fly two legs of the mission.

But when it buys a larger aircraft, the group could fly the entire route, causing less disruption to the child, Erickson says.

The board also is considering hiring a full-time pilot-in-command, rather than rely entirely on its 10 volunteer pilots and its volunteer chief pilot, Dave Roberts, a retired Boeing 747 captain.

Many volunteer flight services require pilots to supply their own aircraft, putting flight scheduling more at the mercy of the volunteers, says Erickson, but Children’s Flight of Hope chose to purchase an airplane in 1995.

“Our service helps reduce stress for a family because I am the one point of contact they have for everything,” she says. “Since we own our plane, I can give a family an answer quickly about when we can schedule them, rather than with some services where the family goes on a wait list and sometimes they don’t know what day they will return home and don’t find out about a flight until sometimes the day before.”

The board, one of the volunteer pilots and a father of one of the needy families have been meeting every other week with a local nonprofit strategy consultant, Meredith Emmett, to create a 3-to-5-year fundraising, marketing and growth plan to determine how much the group should grow.

The nonprofit plans to chart its new route next month after it closes out the year with 80 flights, or 45 percent more than in 2003.

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