By: Jen Russon
A Parkland family with a love of flying sponsored a day of free flights at the Ft. Lauderdale Executive Airport, boosting the confidence of children with special needs by letting them co-pilot at the first Challenge Air event of 2020.
Held a dozen times a year, Challenge Air for Kids & Friends occurs in airports from Seattle to Ft. Lauderdale and challenges the perception of children with special needs through the gift of flight.
Tony Montalto, president of the Gina Rose Montalto Memorial Foundation and a pilot with United Airlines with 30 years experience, said his daughter grew up fascinated by aviation. Her volunteer work for The Friendship Journey had also excited the 14-year-old about introducing kids with disabilities to flight.
“I never got the chance to take Gina up in a small plane with me, but having our foundation sponsor the Challenge Air Kids and Friends event, and to watch her light lift other people up, was truly special,” said Montalto.
He added Gina had signed up to be a volunteer at Challenge Air fly day in 2018, the year she and 16 others were killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on February 14, 2018.
Gina’s mother, Jennifer, also attended the event on January 25 at Banyan Air Service, located at Fort Lauderdale Executive Airport (FXE). The Montalto’s said their son, who also volunteers to help kids with disabilities, couldn’t be there that day because he was on a Boy Scout camping trip.
The event brought many families and volunteers to the hangar, where the children could earn their wings, enjoy breakfast and lunch, and play games organized by Challenge Air.
Executive director, April Culver explained what it means for children when they sit in the cockpit with one of their pilots.
“They get to take hold of the yoke, see how it feels to move the plane to the left and the right, up and down. We believe this builds confidence and self-esteem because, really, when you can fly a plane, you can do anything,” said Culver.
Some of the long-time pilots donating their planes and gas to the 27-year-old nonprofit have said perhaps they get more out of Challenge Air than the kids; that it’s a great feeling to help them smash through barriers, to help them realize their full potential.
Challenge Air pilots are part of an extensive network of volunteers, assisting co-pilots between the ages of 7-21.
Terry Robinson, the local director of the Ft. Lauderdale fly day, said the generosity of the Gina Rose Montalto Memorial Foundation enabled Challenge Air to fly over 250 people, including 82 co-pilots and their families, using 21 aircraft.
The Montalto’s said all of the volunteers made those numbers possible; these include the “loaders” who guide families and co-pilots onto the tarmac and into the plane.
Some organizers plan and generate funds to pay for the big day.
The Montalto family said Gina would have been incredibly proud of the Fly Day her foundation brought to people that included her old friends at The Friendship Journey, and personal family friends, like Kelli Yselonia, a teacher at Park Trails Elementary School.
According to the Montalto’s, Yselonia is a frequent flyer with her 19-year-old son, Justin. Now a student at Broward Community College, he’s flown at least a dozen times over the years on Challenge Air.
Justin’s mother, Kelli, said the kind of autism Justin has caused him to rock back and forth, but that every ride on a Challenge Air flight makes her son feel happy and calm.
“He’s totally relaxed up there, totally chill,” Kelli said.
To honor Gina’s memory, visit her foundation and donate to help students with the cost of post-secondary education, as well as make charitable donations to causes Gina supported.
- Jen Russon is a freelance writer and English Language Arts teacher. She has published two novels to Amazon Kindle and lives in Coral Springs with her family.