By Tammy Stables Battaglia
They won’t be with their parents this Christmas. But about 4,500 children living with foster families in Michigan will have presents under the tree, thanks to sleighs with wings and 18 wheels.
On Saturday, hundreds of volunteer elves bought, wrapped, loaded and sent off 13,521 presents as part of Operation Good Cheer. The volunteer project was created in 1971 by Constantine (Taki) Kortidis, a graphic artist who asked his Ford co-workers to pitch in to donate gifts for 66 foster children in Michigan.
“It’s great working with people who volunteer,” said 25-year UPS employee Tom Whiting, 58, of Farmington Hills, overseeing the human chains that loaded everything from bikes to dolls into the back of tractor-trailers at Oakland County International Airport in Waterford. “Look at all the smiling faces.”
This year, 266 Operation Good Cheer individuals and donor groups bought presents for 4,507 foster children, about a third of the 15,000 or so children in foster care throughout the state, said the program’s chief elf, Sharon Vichcales. She is the administrative director of the Lansing-based agency Child and Family Services of Michigan.
“It’s a population that kind of gets left out,” Vichcales said, adding that the number of volunteers has skyrocketed over the years to make sure that doesn’t happen. “I think that’s why it’s grown.”
Thick fog grounded a number of flying sleighs Saturday, after 100 pilots volunteered. More than 50 Penske, Meijer and other trucks and 30 flights crisscrossed Michigan to 18 airports across the state — some making multiple trips at their own expense.
The gifts are picked up at the airports by volunteers from 51 local social service agencies. Caseworkers then deliver the packages to each foster home, for children who experienced abuse, neglect, homelessness, parents with drug addiction or other issues.
“Operation Good Cheer really fills a huge void,” said Jim Paparella, executive director of Child and Family Charities based in Lansing, which serves about 125 children in foster care in 95 foster family homes in mid-Michigan.
“What a great Christmas for these kids,” he said. “I would say that these children probably had some pretty bad Christmases, considering where they came from.”
Pilot Bob Rivard, 53, of West Bloomfield and his University of Michigan college friend Steve McGarry, 53, of Rochester Hills, who also is a pilot, packed presents into the back of Rivard’s Piper Saratoga to make the 350-mile round-trip to Muskegon.
Rivard and McGarry, both in management at metro Detroit auto suppliers, said it would cost about $200 to make the flight. Sometimes, they get to meet foster children who greet them at the airport on the other end, Rivard said.
“There have been several times when I’ve been able to sit them in the plane, and their eyes get big,” Rivard said. “It’s just a way for my hobby to give back — and it’s an excuse to fly.”
Andrew Weaver, 19, of Midland will be flying for his fourth year with his father, Don Weaver, who runs a shared-aircraft management company in Detroit.
“I just really enjoy delivering the Christmas gifts to kids that wouldn’t be able to get them otherwise,” Andrew Weaver said, with packages wrapped in green holiday Tinker Bell and pink snowman paper stacked behind his pilot’s seat. “And it’s fun to fly them there.”
The effort is priceless for foster parents like Deborah Snaden, 63, of Lansing, who has opened her home to about 40 children during the past 29 years.
“It’s a blessing — it really is,” said the mother of two daughters in their 40s. “It helps everybody more than they realize.”
A former beautician who also offers child care in her home, Snaden said the $13-$15 a day allocated to foster parents barely covers basic necessities for the children.
“And I want to do mine right,” she said, explaining she thinks of herself as a grandmother to them all, so she’s not as sad when they have to leave. In August, she requested toy dinosaurs, a Viewfinder and a portable basketball hoop for a 4-year-old boy with her now, and a lifelike baby doll, a pink guitar and a pink Nintendo DS for his 8-year-old sister.
“Whatever is a blessing,” she said about the gifts that have ended up under her tree on Christmas morning, snuck into the house after the Operation Good Cheer delivery to the Capital Region International Airport in Lansing. “It always works out, because the agency does what they can do. They come down and, ‘Oooooooo.’ ”