On a trip to Cancun, Mexico last year, Jolene Powell’s father suffered a heart attack. He was moved to recover in the intensive care unit at a local hospital, but she didn’t have enough money to fly down to be with him.
“We got a phone call and it was a total shock,” says Powell.
Powell’s friend contacted Give-A-Mile, a Calgary-based non-profit that collects airline miles to donate flights to those in need.
The organization determined that she was a candidate, and donated enough air miles to cover her and her sister’s tickets to visit their father in Mexico.
“Within about 12 hours they had arrangements for me and my sister,” Powell said. “They really took all the worry out of it.”
Now, Powell’s father is back in Calgary and recovering well. Powell says this was incredible because the doctors were unsure he would even make it out of Mexico.
“I really do believe that that is what gave him the strength to pull through and get back to Canada,” says Powell. “He couldn’t believe that his daughters were there.”
Powell is one of many who has been gifted a flight by Give-A-Mile.
What is Give-A-Mile?
The organization was founded by Kevin Crowe, a Calgarian who lost his friend to cancer and realized how expensive flights can be for families who are away from their loved ones. So, Crowe created a program that compiles air miles and donates them to families in need. Since 2013, the group of volunteers has raised 28.3 million miles and is continuously gaining momentum despite the ongoing pandemic.
Visiting sick family members and loved ones is costly, so people sometimes miss saying goodbye before their loved ones die. The main cause for this separation is the basic cost of an airline ticket.
In Powell’s situation, the cost of a last-minute round trip from Calgary to Cancun would have averaged between $500 and $1,000.
“Our mission is pretty straightforward,” says Kevin Blanchette, a founding board member at Give-A-Mile. “We bring loved ones together so they can experience a final time, a final visit, with either a loved one or family.”
People can donate their unused airline points; these donations fund all the flights provided by the organization. Cash donations and larger contributions are both accepted as well.
“We rely on donations from individuals and corporations, both financially and from loyalty points, to be able to help us deliver on our mission,” says Blanchette.
Give-A-Mile has given out over 800 flights, in over 150 countries since 2013.
“We’re approaching our thousandth flight here in the next, I would say, under a year,” says Blanchette.
Workers providing a last chance
Stacey Lazarenko, airline ticketing specialist at the organization, has been voluntarily making all of the organization’s flight arrangements for the past seven years. She says she was drawn to this work because of her own experience with grief.
“I lost my parents quite young,” says Lazarenko.
Lazarenko says that her loss taught her the importance of being with family when they near the end of life.
“We all believe in the same cause,” she says. “The only thing we are guaranteed in life is death, so we have all experienced it in our own individual ways.”
Despite Give-A-Mile’s focus on the donation recipients, Lazarenko said its success is not only measured by the number of flights donated, but also by a combination of responses from members of the healthcare community and others involved.
Lazarenko says the healthcare system acts as a bridge between donation recipients and the organization. Flagging potential participants when they suspect they need help.
“The success itself, I believe, falls on the dedication of the volunteers that are pushing hard to get the word out through the healthcare system,” says Lazarenko. “It’s a good thing and anything that is good will be successful.”
Lazarenko says one of her most memorable experiences with Give-A-Mile was giving flights to a family to go to India for Christmas.
“The father was dying,” she says. “It was his wish to take his family back home to India.
The family of four was gifted flights back to their home country to be together one last time.
How the pandemic affected donations
The pandemic and flight restrictions affected the number of flights donated over the past two years. In 2020, only 79 flights were provided – dropping the donations to nearly half of the 123 flights they donated the previous year.
Despite a significant decrease in flights, the organization has seen a small uptake since the beginning of 2022. Fourteen flights have been donated so far.
“We are hopeful that 2022 will be a record-breaker,” says Kerri Ann Colby, executive director at Give-A-Mile.
Colby was recently hired as the charity’s first full-time paid employee. She is already trying to raise awareness about the program to make it more successful.
“There aren’t the number of people that know about what Give-A-Mile does as should,” says Colby.
Travel restrictions are slowly being lifted around the world and Give-A-Mile organizers are hopeful that they will be able to help reunite more families and friends during these hard times. Blanchette urges members of the community to spread the word and help out in any way they can.
“There are people who have the capacity and ability to help us, volunteer, do an event, support an activity, or get even more involved in our operational component,” says Blanchette. “I like to meet people where they’re at.”
Give-A-Mile hopes to end the year with 165 donated flights.