Going on 34 years, a seemingly under-the-radar charity gives terminally ill children exceptional cheer through gift-giving and a big ol’ holiday party.
Come the second week of December, when 13-year-old Jamie Cothron attends his eighth straight Flight to the North Pole charity event, he already knows what his present will be: Legos.
“He is one of the biggest Lego fanatics,” says Jamie’s mom, Nikki Cothron. “We have a 12-by-13 bedroom with shelves all the way around holding his Lego projects.”
It’s fair to say that the Flight to the North Pole party — and his Lego haul — is the highlight of Jamie’s year. Jamie has a form of muscular dystrophy whose myriad complications prevent him from attending school and keep him in the family’s Bradenton home most of the time.
But thanks mostly in part to the ongoing efforts of one man, Sidney Ettedgui, a long-time employee of the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office, the Flight to the North Pole has been providing terminally ill children with holiday gifts and cheer for 34 years.
Each year, Flight to the North Pole participants fill out wish lists, which the nonprofit does its best to fulfill. Each child who attends A Flight to the North Pole event receives a gift valued up to $100.
“It’s given him such a better outlook on life,” Nikki Cothron says. “Something to really look forward to.”
The event started as an actual flight (hence the name) in 1985 after several Eastern Airlines flight attendants formed the charity with a desire to do something extra special for local children. During the inaugural flight, a group of kids and their parents, who might not otherwise have the means to travel, were invited to board a jetliner (with actual tickets and signage) at Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport. A volunteer pilot took them on a brief flight, and upon landing, they were greeted on the tarmac by Santa Claus, who doled out gifts at the airport fire station.
Following the first Flight to the North Pole, turmoil at Eastern Airlines, which eventually went bankrupt, forced the company to discontinue its participation. The former “silver-liners” were desperate for the charity flight to continue. That’s when their friend Ettedgui, a volunteer and contributor to the cause since its inception, took the lead.
“My goal was always to give back to the community,” Ettedgui says.
At that time, Continental Airlines had also stepped up, and the flights continued for the next 15 years. Then came 9/11.
“With all the new rules, I didn’t want to put the families through that every year,” Ettedgui says. “We decided to have the families come straight to the fire station in the airport. By then, I was working at the Sheriff’s Office, so I got about 50 deputies to provide security.”
Although Flight to the North Pole is a registered 501(c)(3), as a 29-year employee of the Sheriff’s Office, Ettedgui says the department has more or less “adopted” the foundation by offering plenty of support in both resources and volunteers. Firefighters have also been essential in the coordination while the event has been at their station.
Each year, a sheriff’s helicopter delivers Santa to the main event, which happens to be one of 9-year-old Larry Morris’ favorite parts of the experience. Going on his fifth year of attendance, Larry, who is recovering from a kidney transplant last year, also looks forward to getting presents and hanging out with the clowns at the event.
“He pretty much looks forward to everything,” says Jenny Wingate, Larry’s mom.
This year, Jamie and Larry will be just two of some 400 kids to benefit from Flight to the North Pole events, a significant jump from previous years due to major fundraising efforts by its primary benefactor, The Ferrari Drivers Group Sarasota. The 3-year-old organization contributes solely to the Flight to the North Pole.
“The main reason we picked Flight to the North Pole is that all the raised funds stay in our community and benefit critically ill children, and [it] is a volunteer-run organization,” says Jurgun Otto, of the Ferrari Drivers Group.
Last year, the Exotic Car Festival Lakewood Ranch and Ferrari Drivers Group Gala — including a live and silent auction — raised $165,957.70 for the Flight to the North Pole, which effectively doubled the charity’s budget.
In addition to helping outreach of the main event, the extra funds have also allowed Flight to the North Pole to host events at two schools and extend gift-giving throughout the year — to provide motorized wheelchairs for kids and travel and hotel money to families for doctors’ visits, among other benefits. Earlier this year, Jamie Cothron received some wheels of his own in the form of a red, four-wheel motorized scooter.
“The look on his face was priceless,” Nikki Cothron says. “It gives him independence, so that he doesn’t always have to be pushed in a wheelchair.”
The Ferrari Group also holds two other car shows — one in September and the other in November — to benefit the charity, but Otto says the bulk of the money comes from the auction that takes place during the February Exotic Car Festival Gala.
The Ferrari Group Sarasota has scheduled its next Exotic Car Festival Lakewood Ranch for Feb. 29 to March 1. The car show will take place on Feb. 29 on Main Street and is free to the public.
Due to renovations at the fire department facility, the Flight of the North Pole main event will be held at a new venue this year: the Palmetto studios of Feld Entertainment — the company that produces Disney on Ice, Monster Jam and other major tours.
“I am working with two [women at Feld], and I think it will really be a first-class event,” Ettedgui says, adding that the Feld family themselves will be in attendance this year.
In addition to December’s event, two gift-giving Flight to the North Pole parties will be held at G.D. Rogers Garden Elementary and the McCay Academy (formerly Ave Maria Prep School) leading up to the main event.
Despite, at times, battling considerable headwinds, Flight to the North Pole is one of those scrappy nonprofits that has done long-term good for the community, and it has even thrived and grown as a result of the dedication of Ettedgui, whose support for the families extends well beyond the charity events.
“We love him, and he does a lot,” Wingate says. “He helped out after Larry had the transplant.”
And thanks to the support of community organizations, such as the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office and the Ferrari Drivers Group Sarasota, The Flight to the North Pole seems to have settled in for the long flight.