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Musings: The best gift of all

Community outreach keeps a pilot group together

By Andrew Rienstra

The Oakland Southwest Airport (we just call it “New Hudson” on the unicom) is a quiet, small airport near Detroit. The runway itself is 20 years old and has deteriorated enough that most local pilots avoid it.

Illustration by Stuart Briers
Illustration by Stuart Briers

Trees surrounding the runway now require significantly displaced thresholds. Working with local homeowners, our pilot group trimmed enough trees that a new survey got some of our lost runway back. This highlights one of the strengths of our airport: our relationship with the local community. Most local residents like having an airport in their backyard with airplanes flying around.

The airport no longer has a flight school or maintenance facility, and we nearly lost our fuel concession. We currently have 42 based aircraft, a small flying club, and a group of powered paragliders that we have integrated into our operations. But this story isn’t really about our airport or its need for a new runway. It’s about our pilots.

Our pilot group, led by Lynn Prohaska, has continued to thrive. Despite our small size, our pilot group has 79 active members. We hold monthly meetings and three times a year we have cookouts at the airport. Once a year in winter we provide a pizza get-together. In the past year, our airport manager has sponsored four FAA Safety Team (FAAST) seminars. We typically have 15 to 20 members at our meetings, our cookouts draw 50 to 70 members and family, and the FAAST seminars 25 to 30 each.

Recently, beginning about three years ago, our group has taken a direction that none of us really anticipated. We’ve branched out into community assistance during the holidays.

This part of our story goes back to October 2016. A few members, led by Lynn, were trying to find a way to do something for our local community. One of those members, John Adams, suggested a program where we might “adopt” a local family for the holidays. John is about 75 years old but won’t reveal his actual age. He worked in the auto industry for decades and is now the airport’s tinkerer, elder statesman, and all-around social magnet. Another member, Caroline Salzmann, is a local schoolteacher who sees firsthand disadvantaged local children who need gloves, boots, and other necessary items.

Lynn worked with a local organization to identify needy families. They receive input from a variety of charitable organizations and churches around the area, and they have programs to identify children who can’t pay for their school lunches. They have a specific program for the holidays to provide dinner and gifts to those families.

Lynn and Caroline sifted through the long list of people in need and identified two families they thought most appropriate for our efforts. Caroline confirmed with the children’s schoolteachers that those families truly needed assistance and also got ideas for essentials and suitable gifts. One family was a father with three children whose mother had recently left and taken everything with her. The father worked full time but lacked the extra money to have Christmas presents or dinner. The other family was a single mother with one child.

Lynn, Caroline, and John went Christmas shopping with money collected from our pilot group. That first year we collected only $800, but we found out firsthand how even a little money can have a big impact on those in need. Many items purchased were necessities such as clothing and diapers, but they also bought Christmas presents for the children. Prior coordination, when the children were away from home, allowed the parents to give the holiday they wanted for their children.

When delivery day arrived, the single father was overcome by the thoughtfulness and generosity of our pilot group. His reaction galvanized our plans to continue this type of outreach. It isn’t often that the results of donations or volunteer work can give you such an immediate and lasting impact of their effect. Since then, we have been able to expand the program and refine the gifts we purchase. Clothes and necessities will always be in demand, but we also try to buy family gifts. We try to make toys educational in nature, such as arts and crafts items or books. If possible, we try to buy T-shirts or toys with an aviation theme. Gift cards to local superstores allow the parents to purchase other items as they see fit.

Our most successful year yet was 2019. We collected $1,850, which enabled us to help five families with a total of 12 kids. The list of needy families never seems to get shorter or less touching. We helped another single father, but this time one who is raising developmentally disabled children. Another was a single mother with a 1-year old who is also guardian to her 15-year-old niece. It is especially rewarding when we help those who are themselves doing everything they can to help their families.

As we look forward to this holiday season, we have begun to hear hopeful news that we might get a new runway surface soon. There is also talk of a renovation that will include tree removal. But our outreach to the community is our best gift of all.

Andrew Rienstra is a commercial pilot, CFI, and AOPA Air Support Network volunteer who lives in Michigan.

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