EMU aviation students fill planes with presents for Michigan foster children

Eastern Michigan University's (EMU) aviation program recently sent 16 volunteers via airplane to participate in Operation Good Cheer, an annual program that aims to brighten the holiday season for Michigan children in foster care.


Operation Good Cheer started in 1971, and is sponsored and coordinated by Child and Family Services of Michigan. Foster children can make up a list of three or four items they want for Christmas, and pilots are recruited to help deliver the gifts all over the state. The EMU contingent was part of a total of 250 airplanes that participated this year, distributing 21,000 gifts in 29 different airports around the state.


Joe Mills, chief flight instructor for the EMU aviation program, says he participated in Operation Good Cheer for several years before coming to EMU. This is Mills' third year participating in the event at EMU and his sixth year in total.


In Mills' first year at EMU, he and his wife were the only Operation Good Cheer pilots from Ypsilanti. But when students and co-workers found out about the program, Mills says they wanted to participate. In 2018, EMU sent four planes, which doubled to eight planes this year. The 16 volunteers included Mills, his wife, 11 students, and three other instructors.


"The last two years I've been trying to get more involvement in terms of students at the school, and this was our biggest group yet," Mills says.


Pilots remove all the back seats from the planes so they can cram in as many gifts as possible, Mills says.


"We start with the bikes and then build around them and put stuff in every little nook and cranny," Mills says. "This year we had two bikes in my plane, and one was with training wheels. That was cool, because I've got kids around the same age."


The EMU team flew to Oakland County International Airport in Waterford Township on Dec. 7, where a ground crew of volunteers helped pack the planes. The final destination for the EMU planes was MBS International Airport in Freeland, where another crew of volunteers helped unpack the presents for distribution to foster children in Saginaw, Bay City, and Midland.


Mills says he enjoys the project because it matches his talent for flying with a worthy cause, but he says volunteers with a variety of skills are needed to adopt families, buy presents, drive trucks at the airport, and help with loading and unloading.


"Every year it gets bigger, but it's getting more organized," Mills says. "The last two years it was streamlined. The word is out that we needed all hands on deck to make the day go super smooth, and there were no bottlenecks."


He says Operation Good Cheer is already lining up volunteers for the first Saturday of December 2020.


"It's a really good excuse to go out and fly, and it's really rewarding," Mills says.


More information about the project, including volunteer forms and donor guidelines, is available here.


Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She joined Concentrate as a news writer in early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to other Issue Media Group publications. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.

Photos courtesy of EMU Aviation.

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