If you’ve flown in a small airplane before, you know it can be exhilarating. The freedom to fly, to let your problems float away for a while, is healing. But how often does the average kid get the opportunity to fly?
With SOARING, or Special Opportunities Affirm Recognition in Noteworthy Goals, kids and adults get that chance to fly.
SOARING is the creation of marriage and family counselor Joe McCarron of Coeur d’Alene. A private pilot, he uses analogies from flying an aircraft to getting through life’s struggles.
“In life you can be flying straight and level – sometimes you stall,” McCarron said. “We use aviation as a metaphor for life. It’s play therapy. We use airplanes to help (kids) understand life.”
McCarron started the program 15 years ago. Now he has hundreds of volunteer pilots who help. He has pilots from Angel Flight, a national organization of volunteer pilots who fly people for medical purposes, retired Air Force and commercial pilots, and private pilots. He has pilots on standby from Portland, Montana and Vancouver, B.C., as well as local pilots. He even has the 99s, a group of women who started a flight club during World War II and who fly out of Felts Field in Spokane ready to help.
“Back in the old days, it was just me and my plane,” McCarron said.
It all started with a young man on probation who came in for therapy at McCarron’s office. The young man was in the diversion program, which means he had to keep his nose clean. But he punched a principal and refused to do community service. One day the youth saw a photo of an airplane in McCarron’s office and asked what it took to be a pilot. It was the first time he had shown interest in anything McCarron said.
McCarron got him a job washing airplanes at the Coeur d’Alene Airport; he did a good job and the other pilots liked him.
“I took him up for a ride,” McCarron said.
The kid was hooked.
It was hard for McCarron to make a living and launch SOARING by himself, so he formed a nonprofit so other pilots could get involved.
Now SOARING is divided into four groups. The SOARING Eagles are battling emotional and behavioral issues; the SOARING Phoenixes are families or individuals dealing with medical adversity; the SOARING Falcons face the challenges of military life, such as a loved one overseas or families who have lost someone to war; and the SOARING Angels, for people with spiritual and community challenges.
Not only is McCarron a pilot and therapist, he is a Vietnam War veteran and a cancer survivor. Cari Jordan of Post Falls is a breast cancer survivor who enrolled her boys in SOARING when she was diagnosed in 2007. The single mother said her older son, Tyler, then 13, was particularly upset because he understood how serious her condition was. The family was in the Phoenix program.
“It was hard for Tyler to figure out the emotions,” Jordan said. “SOARING helped him get the tools to handle his emotions.”
She said McCarron helped her with her own life changes due to the cancer.
“You have to make decisions on the ground before you can fly,” she said.
Now her father has been diagnosed with cancer, and she has a better understanding of what her sons went through. They did get to fly, going up in a four-seat airplane with the pilot who even let Tyler fly for a bit. She said her younger son, Trevor wasn’t so thrilled with the ride. They flew over Silverwood Theme Park and Priest Lake, which she said was beautiful.
“I can’t say enough about SOARING and what it’s done for my kids. And Joe, I can’t say enough,” Jordan said. “It’s helped my family get through a difficult time.”
McCarron said that each kid gets to choose a little airplane from a bag in his office at the beginning of their program. It’s theirs to keep – but they have to research what’s special and unique about that airplane. They also are expected to discover what’s unique and special about themselves every week.
One boy, Nate, was in a group of middle school boys who had a lot of detention built up. They all went through the program, but the day before the scheduled flight, Nate didn’t think he could make it. McCarron was stunned, until Nate admitted he was afraid to fly, which he didn’t want to admit in the group.
“I asked Nate, ‘What is SOARING?’ ” McCarron said. “He said it’s not about flying an airplane, it’s about initiative. He didn’t go up, but he wasn’t afraid to admit he was afraid to fly.”
Ginny Taft, the treasurer and a board member of SOARING, said every child has a challenge, and they can all use flight as an analogy in life. She said they don’t have to be in a crisis; divorce, bullying, grades, anger issues, self-esteem are all issues kids deal with.
“It’s not about getting something, but also giving back,” Taft said. She said many of the kids go on to volunteer at homeless shelters and mentor others coming into the SOARING program.
“Anxiety and depression surrounds kids these days,” Taft said. “This gives them something positive to look forward to, and an inspiration.”
Leslie Huber of Coeur d’Alene is the mother of D.J. Huber, 20, who was one of the first in the program. She learned about SOARING because they were counseling clients of McCarron’s. Huber said she and D.J.’s father had divorced, and the boy was diagnosed with ADHD and dyslexia. They were able to work through all the difficulties with the help of SOARING.
D.J. has gone on to serve on the SOARING board of directors, and mentor youngsters coming into the program. In high school, D.J., who graduated from Coeur d’Alene High School in 2007, made SOARING the subject of his senior project.
Taft said the board has applied for grants, but like all nonprofit organizations, they need resources. Volunteer pilots have not been a problem, but SOARING needs trainers and facilitators. She stressed these need to be people who just like kids, not necessarily professional counselors. She said they’ve had to turn kids away, and they have a waiting list.
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