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Dreams and Wings touches down, soars in Grand Rapids

Nonprofit organization headed by wheelchair pilot Jack Lewis partners with Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation Hospital to give special needs children the chance to see the world from above.
Jack Lewis and Daniel Urban in Lewis' plane's cockpit.

Jack Lewis and Daniel Urban in Lewis' plane's cockpit. /Adrienne Urban

Underwriting support from:
Noah, Heidi, and Nate Pamerleau await their flight.

Noah, Heidi, and Nate Pamerleau await their flight. /Catherine Glonek

Aidan Jerema, right, with his brother Eli and their father, Marc.

Aidan Jerema, right, with his brother Eli and their father, Marc. /Eva Jerema

Jack Lewis had always been adventurous. As a teen growing up on a farm, he rode horses bareback. As a young man, he drove race cars. 

Then the accident happened.

In 1981 Lewis, then 37, was working under his jacked-up pickup truck. The truck fell over, crushing his spine. He was left paralyzed from the chest down. He would never ride a horse or race a car again.

So Lewis decided to fly airplanes.

Defying his new limitations and energized by a new dream, Lewis overcame disability and depression and earned his pilot's license in 1989.

In 1995 Lewis and a team of volunteer pilots began to conduct events that give special needs children and their families the chance to view their local landscape from 1,500 feet above while riding in small planes.  In 2006, Lewis and his volunteers formed Dreams and Wings, a Michigan-based nonprofit organization through which they now hold their events.  Lewis is one of several Dreams and Wings pilots who use wheelchairs. 

Dreams and Wings partnered with Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation Hospital at the Grand Rapids Air Center Saturday, September 8 to offer local children with disabilities and their families a bird's-eye view of their home domain. 

Barb Wilson, Dreams and Wings’ co-chair and Lewis’ wife, and  Maria Besta, manager of Mary Free Bed's wheelchair and adaptive sports department, organized Saturday’s event.  Besta said the event has taken place in Grand Rapids annually for 13 years. She spoke glowingly of the Dreams and Wings mission.

"It gives kids with disabilities the opportunity to see what it's like to be in a plane," she said, an opportunity they might not otherwise ever have. "It also gives kids with physical disabilities the hope that someday they can be a pilot." Besta called Lewis "a great role model."

Dreams and Wings holds such events throughout Michigan and the Great Lakes region.  Lewis said that he and his volunteers have “flown well over 5,000 kids.”  Lewis reports that Saturday’s event served 37 families, including roughly 50 children.

One local child who took a ride through the sky was Aidan Jarema, a 7-year-old boy who has agnesis of the corpus callosum. His mother, Eva, said how much Dreams and Wings has meant to Aidan, who has already far surpassed the dismal prognosis doctors originally gave him.

"He wasn't supposed to develop beyond six months of age mentally," she said. "For him to come here and fly—it's very special, just another milestone in his life he's overcome."

Aidan, who also participated in last year's event, admitted that Saturday’s flight was more challenging.

"Scared of the bumpy," he said. "My forehead felt a little hot."

Heidi Pamerleau also expressed gratitude for how Dreams and Wings has benefited her daughter Sonia, 17, who has cerebral palsy, and her sons Nate, 15, and Noah, 12, who both have autism

"They love it," she said. "They're so excited to be in a small plane and get that perception of how big the world really is. They can't get that from a book or an explanation."

"It boosts their confidence year after year," she added. She emphasized that this year, Sonia was flying alone with a pilot while her mother and brothers flew in a different plane. 

"She would never fly by herself before," said Pamerleau.  "For her to do that is awesome."

"It was very good," Sonia Pamerleau said after her flight. When asked what she liked best, she answered, "Everything."

Sonia's brother Noah was visibly enthusiastic as he waited for his ride.

"Down! . . . Up, up!" he said. His autism limits his ability to speak words, but he squeaked with anticipation as he approached his plane. And when his mother asked later if he enjoyed his flight, he shouted, "Yeah!"

Encouraging and inspiring children and parents like these is exactly what Lewis envisions Dreams and Wings doing.

"We want to give kids and their families a little boost, to believe that they can do something pretty remarkable," said Lewis. He and his volunteers hope to show challenged families "that even though you have pretty horrendous stuff going on in life, you can still accomplish remarkable things."

Speaking from his cockpit, Lewis reflected on his own journey with disability.

"At first you're so focused on surviving. Each day your goal is to get dressed. I realized I didn't have any dreams because of that."

Earning his pilot's license was a dream fulfilled. And starting Dreams and Wings was Lewis's way to help others dream and achieve those dreams.

"[We] help families plant a seed, to have the courage to dream. We use the metaphor that when you fly over your horizons, you see over your limitations." 

That message resonated with Daniel Urban, a 12-year-old boy with Asperger's Syndrome who loves the Griffins, plays hockey with the Griffins Youth Foundation, and dreams of someday playing on Grand Rapids' AHL team.

"We flew over the Van Andel!" he exclaimed after his flight with Lewis, referencing the stadium where the Griffins play. 

Playing pro hockey is a lofty goal, but Saturday's passengers recognize that seeing the dream from above offers a whole new perspective.







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