BEYOND THE HEADLINES: Thanks for the memories

Richard Rolke reflects on his relationship with Dreamlift Day and Wendy's

The first time I winged south to Disneyland on a Dreamlift flight, my oldest daughter was starting kindergarten (she is now in her third year of university).

I felt guilty about not being there for this significant family milestone, but that disappeared once I was introduced to Vernon siblings Kristen and Mitchell de Jong. For Mitchell, eight, and Kristen, six, the Sunshine Foundation’s one-day extravaganza to the Magic Kingdom was a break away from the daily challenges of cystic fibrosis.

The anticipation escalated during the trip, and it boiled over once they hit Splash Mountain.

“I liked going down the steep hill. It was scary but it was fun,” said Kristen.

Despite a serious illness, the pair remained energetic and set a pace that left their chaperones, and this reporter, struggling to keep up.

“Seeing their faces and excitement has been terrific. It’s great to have somebody who has never been here before and see it through their eyes,” said Mark Goins, a retired Orange County deputy sheriff who volunteered to show the kids around.

Seeing Kristen and Mitchell, and all of the other disabled and seriously ill children, in action was overwhelming. It also gave me strong appreciation for the two healthy girls I had at home.

It was because of that trip that I began volunteering every year at Wendy’s Dreamlift Day, the major valley-wide fundraiser that generated the funds needed for the flights to Disneyland. It didn’t matter if I was flipping burgers or clearing tables, I knew I was helping make a difference in the lives of some great kids.

And then in November 2009, I got calls from Akbal Mund, then-owner of the Vernon Wendy’s, and Steve Tuck, with the Sunshine Foundation. They had a seat for me on the Dec. 10 flight — my 42nd birthday.

This time, I was hooked up with seven-year-old Nicholas Buburuz, of Lavington, and eight-year-old David Laurie, of Westbank. They only had six hours in Disneyland and they used absolutely every minute of it.

“You were so fast, you beat everybody,” sheriff Tom Gallivan told Buburuz as he bounced up stairs and across bridges at Tarzan’s Treehouse.

“He was climbing a rope like a monkey.”

The final Dreamlift trip came just last year, in December 2013. My companions were two 12-year-olds — Vernon’s Keegan Meise and Kamloops’ Mitchell Kopytko.

Their entire goal was to get volunteer chaperone Kathryn Smith, a Kamloops nurse, hurtling down the chute on Splash Mountain.

“I want to see her get soaking wet,” said Meise.

Attitudes were shaped that day.

“I originally wanted to see what it’s like and it’s great to see how happy they are. More people should see how this (trip) affects the kids’ lives,” said Brock Symyk, a Kelowna firefighter who served as a chaperone.

All of these experiences came to mind when I heard that Wendy’s Dreamlift Day is coming to an end.

It would be easy to be angry, but the reality is that business decisions have to be made. Park Inland Restaurants, which took over  the franchise from Mund and his partners in 2012, want to pursue relationships with other charities and that is entirely fair.

Instead of being critical, I want to focus on the good that happened.

Since 1994, more than $1.4 million has been raised and there were seven trips to Disneyland involving generally about 50 children per flight.

Residents throughout the Okanagan embraced these children as their own and made Dreamlift Day an overwhelming success. Very few events actually bring communities together.

But most of all, I will forever be humbled by the courage I saw first-hand. These kids faced pain and, for some, the prospect of death daily, but they laughed and smiled and showed us adults that every minute of life is worth embracing.