Just as the roar and rattle of the aircraft returning to pavement began to quiet, a young voice squealed from a seat near the back of the plane.
“Let’s do it again!”
It was a special evening for 68 Kuna kids who were treated Saturday to a night that began at Boise Airport and took them all the way to the North Pole. Sort of.
The annual event, dubbed “Operation Santa’s Sleigh,” and sponsored by United Airlines, gives Idaho kids an opportunity to feel the magic of Christmas.
Last year, kids from the Meridian School District were the guests of honor; the year before that, United took Boise kids flying.
This year, it was Kuna’s turn.
“We do this for kids who deserve an extra boost at Christmas,” said program coordinator Teresa Slagel, who works for United Airlines and, as it happens, lives in Kuna.
While the event is loosely geared toward kids age 5-12, Slagel said she otherwise doesn’t impose criteria and lets the school district’s teachers and counselors decide which kids get to participate.
It wasn’t an easy choice for district employees, who said they built a list of kids based on knowledge of personal circumstances of kids and families – those who, for one reason or another – could benefit from a special evening and an opportunity to just be what they are: children.
When they arrived at the airport Saturday evening, the kids, along with many parents or grandparents, had fun making crafts, choosing two brand new books from a well-stocked table, visiting with Boise Police K-9 unit, singing Christmas Carols and enjoying other activities and snacks.
And each child or group of siblings did it all in the company of their very own Boise State University football player; a dozen or so members of the BSU team joined the fun, talked with kids, helped with activities, signed autographs, and, on a number of occasions, gave a boost to the drinking fountain.
Members of the BSU cheer team were on hand, as well, and led the kids in rousing cheers and also took requests for stunts like handstands, flips—and the splits.
And when it was time to fly to the “North Pole,” kids said goodbye to their parents—some visibly worried—and and got in line, boarding pass in hand, with their respective schools. For many, it was the first time on an airplane.
According to Slagel, United Airlines supplies the plane, but everything else is accomplished through volunteers. Employees donate their own time and money, and company employees and other volunteers come out to do everything from decorating and painting faces and flying the plane.
“We hold a golf tournament in the fall, and that helps pay for a lot of the costs,” said Slagel, noting that it takes about $7,000 to pull off the whole event. Locally, she said, El Gallo Giro and Paul’s Market also made contributions. Charlie Long of Paul’s, along with Kuna Mayor Greg Nelson, even came along for the ride. Kuna Schools’ Superintendent Jay Hummel also spent time at the airport, but departed before the plane took off around 9:30 p.m.
Once in the air, the plane stayed in the air about 20-30 minutes, where kids sang Christmas Carols and marveled at the lights below.
The plane touched down and returned to a different gate, where, not only was the boarding area decorated like the North Pole, but also piled with gifts for each child.
When everyone was settled someone gave the word and the room exploded in wrapping paper and the shrieks of smiling, laughing, happy children.
“The kids pretty much get everything on their list,” said Slagel, noting that in the weeks prior to the event, the kids were asked to make a list of gifts they’d like to have.
And, while no one said they’d actually be getting those gifts, the United Airlines employees, retirees and sponsors had a different idea.
“I was overwhelmed by the investment they all made of themselves,” said KSD federal programs director Arnette Johnson, who, like many KSD staffers attended the event. “It was very obvious that those who brought the magic of Christmas to these kids got some magic of their own. The spirit of giving they brought, packaged together with that genuine, grateful reception from the kids—all the happy faces and the thank-yous, all the giving and receiving—that was the magic of Christmas.