On August 31, 2010, Heather Maeding's phone started ringing. The time was 6:31 PM. It was the call she had been waiting for since the day her son Luke was born 8 years ago. It was the call that could save his life. There was no time to appreciate the weight of this moment. Pittsburgh Children's Hospital was on the line and told her they had a lung transplant for Luke. Timing was everything. The Hospital gave her a 20-minute window to confirm that she could be there within 3 hours. The problem is that Heather lives in Nazereth, PA, which is 200 miles (a 6-hour drive) from Pittsburgh.
Heather began calling volunteer flight organizations. As soon as she told them her son needed a transplant, she got the same answer. "We don't do transplant flights because they are too unpredictable." She thought of how Luke spends 8 hours a day hooked up to a breathing machine. She thought about Luke watching life go by, unable to play with his siblings. This would not be Luke's life anymore. She called the next organization on her list. Wings Flights of Hope. She told them her son needed to be transported for a lung transplant, but that didn't dissuade them. They agreed to fly Luke. They would get him to Pittsburgh in under 3 hours.
Heather managed to keep it together long enough to call the Hospital back to let them know that Luke was coming. There is only a 6-hour window for a transplant once the organ is harvested. The clock was ticking. Heather got Luke to the airport as fast as she could. Once they boarded the plane, Wings Flights of Hope wasted no time getting Luke to Pittsburgh. They arrived at the Hospital where Luke was immediately prepped for surgery. They made it in time. Less than 6 hours after Heather got the call, Luke had traveled 200 miles and received the lungs that saved his life. It never would have happened without Wings Flights of Hope.
Wings Flights of Hope was founded in 2010 by pilot Joe DeMarco and his wife, Diane. It all started a few years earlier when Joe's friend, Kevin D'Angelo, who is also a pilot, invited Joe to accompany him on a flight. Joe didn't know that flight would change his life. They would typically just fly for fun and grab lunch somewhere, but this time Kevin neglected to mention where they were going. They landed in Pittsburgh to pick up a mother and her baby. The mother was crying hysterically, thanking Joe and Kevin. Joe had no clue what was going on. It turned out that Kevin was a volunteer pilot and the baby had a spinal cancer tumor. Kevin was giving them a free lift to a hospital in New York where the baby could get surgery. He had brought Joe along for the ride.
Joe was hooked. He came home to Diane that night and said, "I'm going to do this." He immediately began volunteering with an organization based out of Boston, but after a few years he noticed there was a need for volunteer flights in his own community of Buffalo, NY. Joe and Diane talked it over. They both agreed. Wings Flights of Hope was born.
Wings Flights of Hope provides air transportation to people for medical and humanitarian purposes that is 100% free of cost to their clients. It is their mission to make sure that people receive the best possible treatment available. Medical flights can cost upwards of $15,000. Wings Flights of Hope removes the barriers of cost and distance, but also provide "a safe, germ-free, comfortable" ride, according to one of their clients. Commercial airliners, with hundreds of different people in and out each day, are like giant petri dishes of deadly germs to people with weakened immune systems. Those people require a safe, sterile environment that Wings Flights of Hope provides for free.
Wings Flights of Hope has 2 dedicated aircraft. All other pilots are volunteers who use their own planes. If a pilot wants to volunteer but doesn't own his own aircraft, he can use Wings' second plane. They currently have a network of 27 pilots from all walks of life. "We have a pilot who is an architect. Sometimes if a call comes in, he'll take a day off work just to fly someone," Diane tells us.
"People with planes look for a reason to go out flying somewhere," Joe explains. "Being a Wings pilot gives you a real purpose for your mission." While the volunteers provide their own aircraft, Wings Flights of Hope reimburses their fuel costs. Some pilots dismiss the fuel reimbursement and choose to fly people on their own dime. The pilots consider it an honor to fly someone in need.
With the help of their generous volunteers, Wings Flights of Hope is able to fill 98% of qualifying flight requests. The only variables that have prevented them from offering a flight have been things out of their control, such as the weather. They are on call 24/7 and go above and beyond (literally) to make sure they get their clients to their destination, free of charge.
It's no secret that aviation is an expensive industry. Anyone bold enough to start a non-profit with 2 airplanes as its foundation is destined for financial hardship. Wings Flights of Hope is hurting. Despite the critical role they play in saving so many lives, in 2012 their expenses were greater than the amount of donations they received. Joe and Diane have dedicated their lives to giving hope to the people who need it, but now it's they who are in need. Today, the Chivers are the ones bringing them hope in the form of a $50,000 grant from the Chive Fund! The grant will go towards essential airplane maintenance, fuel costs, hangar fees, and advertising to spread awareness about their noble mission.
Meet Wings Flights of Hope…