IT was a moment five-year-old Spencer Martel will never forget: watching Vancouver Canucks mascot Fin and Santa Claus get down to "Gangnam Style."
Waiting to take off from YVR on an Air Canada Jazz flight, one of two holiday-themed high-flying adventures Dec. 8 for approximately 100 families served by Canuck Place Children's Hospice, Variety - The Children's Charity or SOS Children's Village B.C., Spencer was amazed when Santa appeared and the two larger than life characters paid tribute to South Korean musician PSY.
Spencer's mother Alysone fondly remembers her son's reaction. "Spencer thought that was so cool that Santa and Fin could dance that way,"
she says. Her youngest still talks about it, weeks later, "Remember when Fin and Santa were dancing 'Gangnam'?" he'll often remark.
The North Vancouver family - Alysone, her husband Warren and their children Nicole, Spencer and Griffin - embarked on the Santa Flight, a cruise around the Lower Mainland and surrounding areas for the second time this year, the result of their ongoing relationship with Canuck Place. Their middle child Griffin, 9, has had seizure disorder and developmental delay with no diagnosis as to why since he was three months old. A student at Seymour Heights elementary, he uses a wheelchair.
The Martels are grateful for the ongoing support of Canuck Place, which provides palliative, as well as respite care services for sick children and their families throughout the province. They've long been involved in the respite program and over the years have stayed at Canuck Place as a family, getting a break from their day-to-day routine.
Griffin has also stayed there for short stints to participate in special programming. For example, he recently spent a week at Canuck Place to engage in holiday and recreation activities.
"He had a really fun time," says Alysone. "It's a chance for him to be away from home. He doesn't get to go to auntie and uncle's house, he doesn't get to go to grandma's house because they just don't have the ability to care for him. Whereas Canuck Place, they have the trained nurses that provide 24hour care and the doctors are
The Santa Flight is in its second year and is made possible through the efforts of North Vancouver philanthropist and community volunteer Joanne Griffiths, a founding member of Canuck Place. She was able to get the initiative off the ground with the help of a friend, Air Canada Jazz pilot Tim Gale, who grew up in West Vancouver.
"He was amazing, he mobilized the (powers that) be at Air (Canada) Jazz," she says.
The three participating organizations were chosen as Griffiths is either currently involved with them, or has been in the past. In addition to the Martel family, a second North Shore family also participated in this year's flight - Peter and Riley Hammond.
Helping out with the in-flight entertainment was pilot Mike Gaty, Mark Brand, a Vancouver entrepreneur who owns Save-On-Meats and is responsible for a wide range of community service initiatives, and Air Canada Jazz flight attendant Mike Griffith who filled the role of a special holiday someone. Entertainment included snacks, carol singing, joke-telling by Saint Nick and sightseeing of course.
Alysone is grateful for the opportunity to experience the Santa Flight with her family.
"Our son has special needs (but) it's not all hard work and sadness. . . . We have an opportunity to participate in special events. You end up feeling like a special family and really you are a special family," she says.
"We've taught (our children) that there's things we can't do because of Griffin, but there's lots of things we can do and things that normally other families don't get to do. We've taught them that those are really special things and those help us through the harder times when Griffin is needing extra care or he's not well," she adds.
Alysone says Griffin truly enjoyed the flight. He's nonverbal so is unable to talk or tell them what he's thinking, however, he's learned to express himself through his facial expressions and body language.
"In a small airplane the takeoff is straight up in the air and he loved that. It was really nice," says Alysone.
Having a child with special needs is challenging and there are many day-to-day activities the Martels are unable to participate in.
"But then we have an opportunity to have an event like
this and it reminds us there's good with the bad and there's more good than bad so it gives everyone that reminder to have a positive outlook and to be grateful for the family we have," says Alysone.
The Santa Flight also provides an opportunity to reconnect with families they've met through their ongoing relationship with Canuck Place.
"When you get together at an event like this, like Joanne Griffiths organized, then you get to reconnect with families and share experiences, trade ideas about how to deal with certain situations, and talk about how the siblings are doing and not just the child who's affected," says Alysone. "That connection is also a very important piece so you don't feel like you're out there alone, trying to deal with the needs of being a special family."
Alysone is grateful to Griffiths for taking the time to organize the event and for providing the opportunity.
"I've always been motivated to help kids," says Griffiths. "That's the most important thing for me and the building of Canuck Place has made such a difference in so many family's lives and to be able to extend that to other programs that help children is something I've always been very passionate about."
Apart from organizing the Santa Flight, Griffiths has had a busy fall, having led the charge in starting the Backpack Buddy Program at West Vancouver's Collingwood School that she hopes grows to other schools in the New Year. The program serves students living in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside and East Vancouver and is intended to fill a need for those who are reliant on school meal programs throughout the week and who lack access to food from Friday night to Monday morning. Students at Collingwood collect healthy food and pack it in bags to be sent home with students to get them through the weekends.
Griffiths views the program as a means of helping to break the
cycle of poverty and to give local children the best start in life as possible.
"There's study after study that proves that unless kids get proper nutrition into them they don't learn, they're not able to function," she says.
Collingwood is the first school to come on board with the Backpack Buddy Program, which falls under the umbrella of the It's A Better Life Foundation, a non-profit organization Griffiths is in the process of launching in partnership with Mark Brand.
"The mission is food security on the Downtown Eastside," says Griffiths.
"A lot of what we do is feeding residents of SROs (single room occupancy hotels) on the Downtown Eastside."
Griffiths was inspired to launch the foundation after visiting a couple of Downtown Eastside schools.
"I just really realized the need and what the levels of poverty are in our own backyard with our own kids," she says.
Her daughter, Emily-Anne, 24, is a Collingwood grad, so they approached the North Shore school as a starting point. With the support of staff, the Backpack Buddy Program got off the ground in September. Following collection drives, students pack the food in bags on Thursdays, which are dropped off to Vancouver students on Fridays. The bags are returned the following Monday to be picked up and the cycle begins again.
"We are running every two weeks at the moment because we don't have enough food," says Griffiths. "We're hoping that we can expand this into other schools and, through publicity, get other people on board to help us with the food collection so we can expand it into every week."
Currently, Collingwood is providing 150 bags to students at Grandview and Queen Alexandra elementary schools.
Griffiths hopes to grow the Backpack Buddy Program in schools throughout the Lower Mainland and eventually across Canada.
"It's a really good program and I encourage people to get involved," she says.
"I would encourage them to take a look at what's happening in their own backyard and make a commitment to make a difference in kids' lives," she adds.
Based on the success of the Backpack Buddy Program, Griffiths is looking forward to expanding her work through the It's A Better Life Foundation, which she plans to officially launch in February 2013.
"There are lots of other things that we're going to be doing," she says.
To get involved in the Backpack Buddy Program, or to make a donation, either monetary or of food, contact Joanne Griffiths at jmg416@ gmail.com.