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128th Air Refueling Wing hosts 28th annual Flight to the North Pole

Lauren Sharp tells Santa what is on her Christmas list at the Flight to the North Pole at the 128th Air Refueling Wing, Milwaukee, Dec. 8, 2012.  Twelve families with children in the care of Children's Hospital of Wisconsin participated in the event put on by military and civilian volunteers.  (Air National Guard photo by Staff Sgt. Jenna Hildebrand / released).

Lauren Sharp tells Santa what is on her Christmas list at the Flight to the North Pole at the 128th Air Refueling Wing, Milwaukee, Dec. 8, 2012. Twelve families with children in the care of Children's Hospital of Wisconsin participated in the event put on by military and civilian volunteers. (Air National Guard photo by Staff Sgt. Jenna Hildebrand / released).

MILWAUKEE -- Military and civilian volunteers from around the community participated in the 28th annual Flight to the North Pole for families of children with life-threatening illnesses, at the 128th Air Refueling Wing in Milwaukee, Saturday.

Santa's elves and Wisconsin Air National Guard volunteers welcomed 12 families, with children in the care of Children's Hospital of Wisconsin, aboard a KC-135 Stratotanker decorated as the Santa Liner. Their destination: the North Pole.

With their Santa Liner boarding passes in hand, the children found their seats on the aircraft and were ready to for their flight to begin. Airmen with Santa hats on and volunteers dressed as Santa's elves entertained the families as the pilots taxied the aircraft around the airfield.

Balloons, garlands, snowflakes and Christmas lights decked the passenger seating area on the aircraft. One by one, the children onboard were called up to the flight deck to radio Santa. Once they made radio contact with him, they told him what was on their wish lists.

After the pretend flight, the families were bussed off of the ramp and over to Sijan Hall on the base, which was transformed into the North Pole. Santa and Mrs. Clause were waiting outside to greet the children as they ran off the bus. Carolers, who filled the entrance hallway, were also there to receive them with classic Christmas songs.

Santa's elves were assigned to take care of each family at the North Pole. The children ate snacks and played with the elves while they waited to sit on Santa's lap.  After telling him what they wanted for Christmas, they each received a gift donated by supporters of the program.

Although it was a familiar reception for 11-year-old Cole Sharp, the experience was new and exciting to his sister Lauren Sharp, 8 years old, who was diagnosed with childhood acute lymphoblastic leukemia.

"Cole was here last year because we were in the hospital," said Scott Sharp, Lauren and Cole's father. "One of the elves kept our card from last year to make sure that we were invited this year."

With Lauren's condition preventing her from being released from the hospital for the event last year, Cole attended with his grandmother but didn't open his presents. Even refusing to take a picture on Santa's lap last year, Cole said that he didn't want his sister to feel bad, said Scott Sharp. The elves sent two of everything along with Cole and the siblings opened their gifts together at the hospital.

Such was not the case this year. Lauren was resilient and joyful at the event. She received her gift from Santa, brought it back to her table and tore through the wrapping to find a new Barbie doll. She and Cole continued to celebrate the day with a balloon sword fight.

"It's heartwarming to see all these people come together," said Scott Sharp. "The armed forces, police, and fireman come together to help make Christmas a little brighter. We appreciate the time and resources."

Elves Sharon Kegel and Debbie Gomez have participated in this event for several years. They try hard to make the day special for each child so that they can forget their illnesses and enjoy their time with their families.

"It's a whole family affair," said Gomez. "A lot of the time, the child in the family with an illness gets the attention, but on this day all the children in the family are equal."
Kegel is hopeful that the Flight to the North Pole will continue forever. "I hope that it never lacks volunteers and that people will continue to generously donate gifts and support," she said.

The elves assisted in taking care of all the children at the North Pole. Illnesses were irrelevant for a time as the children made friends with each other.

"It just warms your heart to see all of this," said Master Sgt. Jennifer Lychwick, the coordinator for military support. She has participated in the Flight to the North Pole for three years and this was the first year that she managed it.

"I knew as soon as I participated in it, that I wanted to do it every year," said Lychwick. "I never thought I'd be coordinating it, but I'm glad I did."