It was Christmas Eve, 2014, but in this home, no one was celebrating. The young family of a local Iraq War veteran, recently home from deployment, simply didn’t have the means this year.
A knock on the front door at midnight came as a surprise. Even more surprising was the visitor himself: Santa Claus stood in the doorway, a large bag of toys and food in hand.
And that’s how the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW)—of which Santa was a member—and the Colorado Aviation Business Association (CABA) saved Christmas.
The two organizations have worked together for the past seven years to ensure veterans in need are able to celebrate the holiday season with toys and nonperishable food items.
Each December, the VFW identifies veterans in need of assistance, whether they’re homeless, wounded, recently returned to American soil, or in assisted living communities.
It collects donations in cities and towns across Colorado. CABA also assists with donation collection, then coordinates its members, aviation students and private pilots (all volunteers) for its annual Holiday Airlift, which delivers the gifts to veterans around the state.
“It’s definitely a complicated logistical thing,” said Kenn Kline, a CABA board member who coordinates the event on the Western Slope.
“Everyone who’s flying in this airlift is doing so out of the goodness of their hearts because they’re paying for everything.”
An Air Force veteran, Kline is also a member of the Montrose VFW. Alongside the Delta VFW, it has spearheaded donation delivery in western Colorado.
CABA’s mission as a grassroots nonprofit is to educate the public on the value of aviation and community airports. It’s hard to debate that point thanks to the good accomplished by the airlift, which connects community members to each other and communities themselves to other parts of the state.
“Living on the Western Slope, how many things do we have that really connect the whole state of Colorado?” said Kline. “We’re kind of divided by rocks in the middle. Now you have this connection that takes aircraft and flies them around various locations in the state.”
A heavy load
On December 7, CABA will host its annual holiday party in Centennial, Colorado. The cost of entry is a food or toy donation. Volunteers from the aviation industry collect and manifest the gifts.
Over the next few days, a hangar at Centennial Airport—provided for free by Signature Flight Support, which also performs logistical assistance—houses more donations.
Last year, the two organizations distributed approximately 8,000 pounds of food and toys to around 480 people, said CABA Communications Manager Mike Straka. This year, a partnership between the VFW and Front Range King Soopers stores has resulted in a collection that weighs nearly twice as much.
“Canned goods weigh a lot more than dry goods like cereal and pasta and beans. This year, we’re looking at about 60 percent of the food weight to be composed of dry goods, and about 40 percent will be made up of canned goods,” Straka said.
The toy donations are trickier to handle, since they won’t weigh the planes down as much but take up a lot of room.
“Try flying a Cessna 172 with a teddy bear that takes up the whole cabin,” Kline said.
On the morning of the airlift, dozens of volunteers load the donations on eight to 15 planes, some donated by Metropolitan State University of Denver’s Department of Aviation and Aeronautics, some belonging to CABA flight crews and some rented by private pilots.
“In some cases they own their own airplane. In some cases they don’t, which means they pay a rental fee for the airplane in addition to fuel costs,” Straka said. “Everyone who’s flying in this airlift is doing so out of the goodness of their hearts because they’re paying for everything. People in the aviation industry are willing to do anything to help out whoever’s in need.”
Donations are divided among the aircraft according to how much each can carry, then the planes are assigned to Colorado cities where the VFW has identified a need. This year, the airlift will deliver goods to Alamosa, Pueblo, Las Animas, Burlington, Greeley, Montrose and possibly Durango or Cortez. The groups anticipate serving about 70 families this year, nearly 30 of which live in the Montrose and Delta areas.
Paying it forward
Both Kline and Straka feel that the airlift is a testament to the aviation industry’s level of commitment to the communities it serves.
“[It’s] been a real positive in a world that otherwise has a lot of negatives you hear about,” Kline said.
The reactions the organizations have received say a lot about the group they’ve chosen to serve, as well.
“A young woman called me in 2012, the second year we were going to do this, and she said, ‘My husband and I benefited from what you did last year. Now I have a job and he has a job,’” Kline remembered. “She was calling about how she could now contribute. That’s what paying it forward means among veterans.”
This year’s airlift takes place on December 10.
Donation boxes are available in Montrose and Delta. Call the Montrose VFW at 249-4989 or the Delta post at 874-8172 to learn more.
To become involved with CABA, visit www.mycaba.org.
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