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‘Flight to the North Pole’ brings holiday cheer to Wisconsin kids with cancer

North Pole flights first took off in Milwaukee in 1985, have spread to 20 cities across the US

"Flight to the North Pole" event.
128th Air Refueling Wing personnel and families board the KC-135 jet for transit over to the “North Pole,” located at Signature Flight Support MKE, as a part of “Flight to the North Pole” event on Dec. 10, 2022. Staff Sgt. Josh Halverson/U.S. Air National Guard (CC BY)

The North Pole may be some 3,000 miles from Wisconsin, but kids in the Milwaukee area got to visit the winter wonderland in their own backyards earlier this month.

Flight to the North Pole is a trip held every December at General Mitchell International Airport for kids with childhood cancer and their families.

Lt. Col. Carson Hardesty has been volunteering with the nonprofit organization since 2003. He says volunteers use a little bit of “Santa magic” to make the experience as real as possible.

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“They came to the airport, they had to go through TSA, they had a ticket,” Hardesty, a pilot for the Wisconsin Air National Guard, said. “They came down the jet ramp, came on our plane, and then we taxi them over to the North Pole.”

The North Pole, located at the Signature Flight Support MKE air terminal, is decked out in Christmas lights and garland. Kids are greeted by Santa and Mrs. Claus, his elves and Disney characters like Elsa from “Frozen.” They also get to take a photo on Santa’s sleigh.

A child smiles as he is greeted by a reindeer.
A child smiles as he is greeted by a reindeer, as a part of “Flight to the North Pole” event at Signature Flight Support MKE on Dec. 10, 2022. Children met various holiday figures such as Santa, Mrs. Claus, elves and more. Staff Sgt. Josh Halverson/U.S. Air National Guard (CC BY)

Laura Golner is a self-described elf with Flight to the North Pole. She said the event is a chance for the kids and their families to focus on something cheerful.

“In the world they’re currently in with cancer, they know that they’re going to be going for treatment tomorrow or next week or not really knowing what’s coming months down the road,” Golner said. “But they know that on this day, they get to go and see Santa and fly to the North Pole. And for them having something positive and fun to look forward to sometimes is really the only wish that they need.”

Crafts and games and holiday treats are among the festivities, and kids get to open gifts from their wishlists. This year, the flights served 25 Milwaukee-area families.

Hardesty said the Wisconsin Air National Guard has been working with the organization for decades, and that the event brings almost as much joy to the volunteers as it does to the families themselves.

“The (crew) went in there and they strung a bunch of lights that were flashing and we had garland … they decorated the inside to make it look real nice,” Hardesty said. “You really see their faces light up. I hope they like it as much as we do.”

The flights first took off in Milwaukee in 1985, and have since spread to 20 cities across the U.S.