Sometimes, perspective can make all the difference. Over the past several years, Challenge Air for Kids & Friends, a Dallas–based non-profit, has been offering physically challenged children the chance to view their situations from a different perspective.
Founded in 1993, Challenge Air was the dream of the late Rick Amber who believed that through the liberating feeling of flying through the skies, challenged children would be able to gain a new perspective on their lives, renew faith in themselves and strive to reach for their dreams. Rick, who lost the use of his legs in 1971 in a plane crash returning from a combat mission in Vietnam, began flying kids in his private plane allowing them to leave their wheelchairs or braces behind and see the world from a totally different view. Seeing Rick, who was in a wheelchair just like them using his specially designed hand controls in command of the plane, the kids were motivated to realize there was no real limit to what they could do.
Though Rick died of cancer in 1997, his vision for Challenge Air lives on through its dedicated staff and volunteers. Over the last seven years, Challenge Air has expanded into a nationwide organization that hosts "Fly Days" all across the country. During a typical "Fly Day" some 200 kids go through a "ground school" where they first learn about the basics of flight and about the special hand controls used by some of the pilots with disabilities. Then the children take to the skies for a 20-minute flight aboard one of the Challenge Air planes. There is never a cost to the children, as each program is underwritten by corporate, philanthropic and individual donations.
Lonna Harris was Rick's first full time employee. She has been Executive Director since Rick passed away. Her energy and leadership have pushed the organization to new levels of growth.
"Rick gave me an opportunity to see the world through his eyes," Harris says. "I promised him I would do everything to keep his dream alive, and I'm ecstatic that the organization has grown so much and helped so many kids."
Another member of Challenge Air who gained his inspiration from Rick Amber is Challenge Air's Director of Events, Theron Wright, who has been inspiring children through Challenge Air since 1997. Rick inspired Theron to pursue his passion for flying after Theron lost the use of his legs due to an on-the-job injury in 1994.
For two very special children, Amber Mullinax and Tony Nieves, the view from the window of a Challenge Air plane gave them a different perspective on their challenges. That renewed perspective has inspired and instilled in them both courage to strive for more.
Nineteen-year-old, Amber Mullinax of Irving, Texas, was born with Cerebral Palsy. Two years ago, Amber had a life changing experience when she took her first trip aboard a Challenge Air plane at one of Challenge Air’s “Fly Days.” The pilot actually let her take over the controls, and for the first time, Amber’s physical barriers were removed from her consciousness as she was flew the plane all on her own.
“Theron flew Amber for the first time, and she won’t fly with anyone else,” says Amber’s Mother, Dee Mullinax. “Theron is such an inspiration to Amber. When he let her fly the plane, I don’t believe he had any idea how much confidence and courage he provided to Amber. Now she realizes that there’s not much she can’t accomplish if she puts her mind to it.”
Seventeen-year-old Tony Nieves, of Pembroke Pines, Florida, became a quadriplegic at the age of 16 after a cycling accident left him paralyzed from mid-chest down. Tony's dreams of pursuing a career in aviation where shattered and his outlook on life became less than positive in the face of his disability.
Tony’s parents heard about Challenge Air and brought him to a local “Fly Day.” Flying in a plane with Jeff Shaftner, a fellow quadriplegic pilot who showed Tony that physical barriers can be overcome, fostered in Tony the realization that he could successfully pursue a career in aviation.
“I was nervous at first to be in a plane with a fellow quadriplegic as the pilot, but as soon as we lifted off and I saw the control he had, my fears went away quickly, as did any doubts I had that I could become a pilot,” says Tony.
Now a senior in High School, Tony is continuing his interest in aviation and his immediate goal is to one day pilot his own plane.
To date, more than 11,000 children, just like Amber and Tony have experienced the benefits of flying with Challenge Air. The volunteer pilots, who are almost all wheelchair riders themselves, inspire the children to look past their own disabilities and to gain motivation and courage from the exhilarating independence of soaring through the clouds. Although the flights won't eliminate the tough challenges these physically challenged children face, it gives them courage, great memories, experiences and the knowledge that at least while flying, their physical barriers can be removed and anything is possible.
For more information on Challenge Air for Kids and Friends, call (214)-351-3353 or visit the organization's Web site at www.challengeair.com.