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A Brief History

White Feather Flights is a program that coordinates annual events to connect families grieving a loss with volunteer pilots who facilitate a commemorative flight as a celebration of life.

Influence and inspiration for White Feather Flights were drawn from the Dreams and Wings organization. Established in the late 1990s by Jack Lewis, a pilot in Lapeer, Michigan, Dreams and Wings is dedicated to providing a positive aviation experience to children with physical challenges. Each year, the organization coordinates a network of volunteer pilots in Michigan, connecting them with children and family members identified by local medical facilities. Events are generally held five to seven times a year, with each one hosting 40–70 children and their family members.

In 2007, an annual Dreams and Wings event was held in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in collaboration with the University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center. At this event, a couple approached one of the volunteer pilots, Ron Shamblin, with a request. Ron had provided an airplane ride the previous year for them and their young daughter, who had been diagnosed with cancer. Their daughter was thrilled with the flight but had recently passed away, and the couple wondered if they could remember the joy of her last flight with another one. Ron said yes, and they departed for short flight around Ann Arbor in his Cessna Skylane.

During that flight, the couple shared memories of their daughter. They then presented a large white feather decorated with her name and asked if they might be able to release it out of the plane in celebration of their daughter’s life. Ron agreed and, after a few more prayers and tears, the couple released the feather over Michigan.

The following year, others who had heard about this white feather experience showed up at the Dreams and Wings event in Ann Arbor. They asked if they, too, could have similar flights to celebrate their loved ones who had passed away during the previous year. Jack Lewis agreed, and realized there may be a growing and passionate interest in providing similar grief support to other families.

In 2009, Dreams and Wings and the Comprehensive Cancer Center held a separate event in Ann Arbor to provide support to families who had lost someone to cancer during the previous year. Over 30 families participated in that first White Feather Celebration. As a volunteer pilot from Grand Rapids, Jim Hesseman flew to Ann Arbor to observe that first event and felt that a similar celebration could be held in West Michigan. Jim arranged a meeting at Gilda’s Club Grand Rapids, a free cancer and grief support community, to discuss with Jack Lewis and representatives from the University of Michigan the possibility of conducting a White Feather Flights celebration in the Grand Rapids area. They moved forward with an event for 12–16 families in August 2010. Steelcase Inc. agreed to host the event at their corporate hangar at the Gerald R. Ford International Airport.

These White Feather Flights of celebration have since been successfully and safely conducted every year in Ann Arbor and Grand Rapids. The response from participating families has been very positive and the support—from the University of Michigan, Gilda’s Club, Steelcase and the network of volunteers and volunteer pilots who donate their time and the cost of each flight—has been incredible.

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The purpose of White Feather Flights to honor the journey of grieving children, families and individuals and to help them remember their loved one who passed. We’ve created White Feather Flights, and the materials that support the program, so it can be implemented in any community.

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