Halifax Heroes: Pilot helps kids with special needs fulfill flying dreams
The Dream Wings charity has provided flights to roughly 60 kids and their loved ones so far.
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Dimitri Neonakis is helping dreams of special needs children take flight through a new charity.
The Dream Wings initiative allows children to experience the joys of flying as a “co-pilot” via free airplane excursions from the Debert airfield. In addition to children with special needs, he has welcomed children from families whose finances make flying out of reach.
Neonakis, a Dartmouth resident with 20 years of flying experience, said his idea grew wings about two months ago.
“I posted something on Facebook and it just took off. There was a lot of interest and within four days I had five flights,” he recalled.
“Then the next week I had more and so I asked for help (volunteers) because there were so many. We’ve had children with conditions from cerebral palsy to autism to Down’s syndrome and a visually impaired child.”
As of last week, Dream Wings had provided 44 free flights to 66 children and their parents. More flights were booked over the long weekend.
Neonakis conducted 34 of those flights, while two volunteer pilots did the other 10.
His personal Facebook page is filled with heartwarming videos and photos of some of the children who’ve participated.
One of the many stories that touched his heart was receiving an email from a boy named Emmett.
“My name is Emmett, I am 10 years old and have Spina Bifida, Hydrocephalus and NVLD. I saw videos from Dream Flights and I was hoping to get an opportunity to be your copilot, my brother Liam has ADHD and a Learning disorder and he thought he'd ask you if he could go too?... I hope you can make the time for Liam and me,” the email stated.
A video shows Emmett fighting back tears before getting on the plane. After a chat from Neonakis, he brightens up and enjoyed his flight.
“Another one of the kids, a visually impaired child, his dream is to become a pilot. Now how do you do that when you can’t see? So I said you know what? I’m going to give him his shot,” Neonakis said.
“He told his mom he wants a jet pack for Christmas…When his mom gets upset with him he says he wants to fly to his grandma’s house.”
Children who’ve participated in Dream Wings have so far ranged in age from 3 to 20, and have come from HRM and other parts of Nova Scotia.
Including take off and landing, each flight lasts about 40 minutes.
“I keep the flights close to the airport just in case of an emergency. I fly over the Shubenacadie River and we watch the rafters going around,” Neonakis said.
“Then we go over to the windmills and a lake near Brookfield and there’s all kinds of boating going on so we fly low there. Then over the corn maze over Truro then over Truro then we drop down a bit low near the farms and watch the cows.”
Neonakis said the initiative has had the benefit of curing several children of their fear of airplanes and flying. He makes modfications as required to suit the individual needs to the participants.
While he wants to keep Dream Wings small and plans to handle it himself, he hopes other flying clubs and organizations consider offering a similar initiative.
“I could write a book about what I’ve experienced so far. Watching parents. Watching a father lifting up his child to put him in the airplane because the child can’t even lift his arms,” Neonakis said.
“You and I tell our children to go pee in the morning or go brush your teeth. They don’t have that luxury. This creates awareness of what these people go through. They’re the real heroes of this whole thing. I’m not. Those kids and those parents and the grandparents.”