Turns out you don’t need reindeer and a sleigh to get to the North Pole.
United planes took off starting last week for the annual Fantasy Flight program, the company’s holiday giving initiative that takes children in need in 16 cities worldwide and flies them to the “North Pole” (a.k.a. from one gate to another) for a day with Santa and surprises.
“For some of these children, it might be their last Christmas,” flight attendant Jodie Stoppenbach told PEOPLE last Saturday before the Chicago Fantasy Flight from O’Hare International Airport. “It is so heartwarming, heartfelt,” added fellow flight attendant Sheila Omann. “It’s hard to hold back the tears but the joy in their faces every single year is amazing.”
Each of the 16 cities participating in the program plans its own day and picks its own cause; for Chicago, the cause is generally Cal’s Angels, an organization that works with eight pediatric cancer centers throughout the city and helps identify children that have special health and financial needs who might benefit from the event. The kids and their families are invited to the airport by United, and at the end of the day, given every single gift on their Christmas lists.
“Some of these kids might not have flown on a plane before, and might not ever be able to,” Cal’s Angels program director Ashley Nakayama told PEOPLE. “This is a highlight for many of our families. Some of our families who’ve had kids pass away since the event even continue to tell us that.”
What makes the program particularly special is that it’s volunteer-driven; though it’s all United employees handling check-in, flight operations, the two included meals and every detail in between (CEO Oscar Munoz was even on the Chicago flight, and his son serving lunch afterward), every single one of them volunteers their time and expertise.
“The hardest part is capping volunteers because we only have so much gate space,” Peg Bucaro, a Global Services customer service agent who helps run the Chicago event, told PEOPLE. “I probably have 500 more people who would like to be a part of this.”
Bucaro has been involved with the Chicago event for all 16 years it’s taken place. “The feedback is what keeps us going,” she said, adding that she and her team of eight are already planning next year’s Fantasy Flight. “We’re so grateful we get to do something nice and give back. For someone who doesn’t have a sick child — and for those of us who volunteer who do have a sick child — it’s just something kind we can do for those who could use a little cheer this season.”
In Chicago, the Snare family was among the day’s attendees; dad Joseph brought daughter Quinn, 6, who has acute lymphoblastic leukemia, and her two brothers.
“Cal’s Angels has been so gracious to us,” he said. “My wife had a brother who died 25 years ago of neuroblastoma, and to hear her parents talk about treatments and how little community there was back then … what has transpired in 25 years for families of children with cancer is incredible.”
While the special events and gifts for Quinn and her siblings are “amazing,” he said, it is the more human moments — for example, Bucaro holding an exhausted Quinn as Snare was able to grab lunch for his kids — that made the Fantasy Flight day extra “incredible.”
And that’s exactly what Bucaro hopes the families take away from the day. “The commonality here is every one of these families has a child battling cancer,” she said. “So just to give them one day where that is not top of mind is all we hope to do.”
The final United Fantasy Flight of the season takes off from Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey on Wednesday.