"All that they’ve been through and yet here they are, enjoying life. It’s something special.”

By Alison Fox
December 12, 2019
Courtesy of United Airlines

When Katelyn Spoerl was only 20 months old, she got liver cancer. Now, 7 years old and cancer-free for the last five, little Katelyn got to celebrate in style, boarding a United Airlines "Fantasy Flight" to the North Pole.

“We’re so excited,” said mom Laura Spoerl, 42, a social worker from Glen Ridge, NJ, as Katelyn bounced around the terminal. “She’ll remember it forever. How lucky we are to be here, to be a part of this and have so many people who care enough to give their time.”

Courtesy of United Airlines
Courtesy of United Airlines

Katelyn, who was treated at Newark Beth Israel Medical Center, boarded the flight out of Newark Liberty International Airport on Wednesday along with her mom and 44 other families, most of whose kids have dealt with various illnesses. This festive flight, which United has been organizing for more than three decades, is just one of 16 this month taking place in cities across the world, including Denver, San Francisco, London, Tokyo, and Frankfurt.

“I plan my entire year around doing this event,” said Rebecca Scott, an inflight supervisor for United who dressed up like a toy soldier on Wednesday. It was her third year volunteering for the effort. “All of the hard work and all of the sweat... it’s all worth it. It’s unbelievable, it’s hard to put into words. Once you get a feel for it, you want to do it every year.”

Courtesy of United Airlines

With “Frosty the Snowman” playing over the intercom, the pilots (sporting reindeer ears, of course) prepared for takeoff. The plane was first sprayed with deicing fluid — or magic dust, if you will — and off it went, skirting by New York City’s skyline and lifting up above the clouds, a magical experience in and of itself. The kids cheered as the plane circled the city for just under 45 minutes before flight attendants dressed in festive costumes passed up and down the aisle, closing the windows and darkening the cabin.

The plane, which was decked out with holiday decor, was preparing to land and it had to go through a magical portal to ensure everyone got to their final destination: the North Pole.

Four-year-old Julianne sat next to her mom and watched “Angry Birds 2” as the flight hurtled toward Santa’s hometown. It was her first time in an airplane and she couldn’t wait to see the big man himself. She had been diagnosed with severe asthma and sleep apnea (the latter of which was thankfully fixed with surgery) and treated at The University Hospital.

Courtesy of United Airlines

“You have no choice but to be strong. She’s actually really strong too,” said her mom, Marielly Benitez, 25, who lives in Newark. But Wednesday’s flight was all about forgetting their worries and having fun. “I’m excited for her… You can see the joy in their faces.”

Marilyn M. Harris, the vice president of community relations at Newark Beth Israel Medical Center, said it was amazing to be able to celebrate the resilience of kids who have been through so much.

Courtesy of United Airlines

“Some of them have had three surgeries. You go through the beginning of your life with all these surgeries and doctors, [and] to have something like this really brings joy,” she said. “I get so excited to see them, I feel like a kid again myself. All that they’ve been through and yet here they are, enjoying life. It’s something special.”

Courtesy of United Airlines

Finally touching down at the North Pole — an area known as the terminal to grown ups — the kids rushed off the plane, lining up to hug Santa (along with his friends like Mickey Mouse, Olaf, and Pikachu), have a dance party, eat some holiday cookies and open presents chosen by United from the children’s own wish lists, wrapped neatly for them under the tree.

“We get to see them when they’re suffering and going through treatment. To get to see [them] doing fun things is the best part of the job,” said Deb Brouwer, 44, a nurse practitioner in pediatric urology. “Everybody just comes together. It’s like magical, there’s no other way to say it.”

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