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Spreading good cheer from the air



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Oxford veterinarian Elizabeth McGhee and her son, Merritt, took to the air to deliver gifts Saturday for Michigan children in foster care as part of Operation Good Cheer. (click for larger version)
December 07, 2011 - Santa Claus isn't the only one who flies the friendly skies delivering Christmas gifts to children.

Although she doesn't have a magic sleigh pulled by eight flying reindeer, pilot Elizabeth McGhee does have a little Cessna 172 and she uses it every year to bring gifts to Michigan children in need as part of Operation Good Cheer.

On Saturday, McGhee, a 54-year-old Ortonville resident and veterinarian who co-owns (with her husband) North Oakland Veterinary clinic in Oxford, delivered loads of gifts from Oakland County International Airport to airports in Adrian and Flint.

"It's like being Santa," she said. "I can cram a whole lot in my plane. It's as big as any sleigh."

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Sponsored and coordinated by Child and Family Services of Michigan, Inc., Operation Good Cheer is a Christmas gift-giving program run entirely by volunteers. It was started in 1971 by individuals who wanted to make a difference in the lives of children who reside in foster care.

"There's kids out there that I don't know if they'd even get any gifts because they've been taken out of their homes," McGhee said.

Operation Good Cheer begins with donor groups and individuals buying and wrapping Christmas gifts from children's wish lists. These gifts are picked up and transported to a centrally-located airport by trucking companies and their drivers, who donate their services and time.

Pilots and drivers with their aircraft and vehicles then transport the gifts to local airports across Michigan. At each airport, volunteers gather the gifts and deliver them to children and youth in foster care.

"It's a well-oiled machine," McGhee said.

She described Saturday's scene at the Oakland County airport as a "beehive of excitement." Volunteers and pilots descended on the airport like a "swarm of mosquitoes on a summer evening."

"It was just crazy," McGhee said.

Each year, more than 4,000 children and youth are provided with gifts to open on Christmas morning. Since 1971, more than 73,000 participants have had their Christmas wishes come true thanks to Operation Good Cheer.

"To do something like this for people we don't even know, to me, that's what Christmas is all about," McGhee said.

Last year, the program gave gifts to more than 4,270 recipients Ė infants, children, teenagers and adults with disabilities Ė statewide. This was made possible thanks to 261 donors, 17 transport companies, 16 airports, 200 pilots who made over 165 flights, and more than 300 volunteers at the departure airport.

"It's just Michigan people pulling together for Michigan kids," McGhee said. "I love what Michigan people are doing for each other."

This was McGhee's third year flying gifts around the state. She's previously delivered to Jackson, Muskegon and Lansing.

"I get to play this little part," she said. "But it's the fun part because I like to fly."

"Pilots always look for any excuse to fly. You put kids and Christmas presents into the mix and they go nuts," McGhee added.

McGhee began taking flying lessons when she was 45 and received her pilot's license when she was 47.

She's definitely a fan of Operation Good Cheer's work because she knows from personal experience what it's like to face the prospect of having no Christmas gifts for your children. "I have nine kids and there were times when my husband and I didn't have work," she said. "One year, I thought we were going to have nothing."

Fortunately, the McGhee family's friends came together and bought presents for the children. "One guy even brought a horse," she said. "He came walking up the driveway with a horse. He had bells and big ribbon on him."

Please visit www.cfsm.org/OperationGoodCheer.htm to learn more about the program and how to get involved.

CJ Carnacchio is editor for The Oxford Leader. He lives in the Village of Oxford with his wife Connie and daughter Larissa. When he's not busy working on the newspaper, he enjoys cigars/pipes, Martinis/Scotch, hunting and fishing.
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