Hope Is in the Air

October 22, 2021
Hope Air story image
Photo of Hope Air Volunteers, Marilyn Staig and Lee Arsenault.

Van Kam Freightways Ltd. is proud to be involved in the communities we live and operate in by supporting local charities and non-profit organizations. One such charity is Hope Air. They are Canada’s only national charity providing free travel and accommodations for Canadians in financial need who must access medical care far from home. Hope Air patients also use commercial airlines and local pilots for remote locations where larger airlines can’t fly. Van Kam is a proud sponsor since 2019.

Hope Air recently held their “Give Hope Wings: Boundary Bay to Hudson Bay Expedition” – an epic multi-aircraft series of round-trip flights from Boundary Bay, BC to Churchill, MB. The expedition hopes to raise $400,000 to provide 1,600 flights for patients and their families across Canada who routinely have to choose between medical care over their food and rent.

Van Kam was lucky enough to interview one of the organizing committee members of this expedition, who also happens to be one of Hope Air’s volunteer pilots, Lee Arsenault. He provided an excellent insider’s view of this unique organization and its impact on his life and the patients who rely on this vital charity. Below are the questions that he and his wife, Marilyn Staig, happily answered for us.

When did you start flying?

I received my pilot license in 2008 and currently have a private aircraft licensed for general aviation. Flying planes was something I had always wanted to do for a very long time. Soon after my wife Marilyn and I retired from our jobs as IT Project Managers, getting my pilot license became my main retirement project.

How long have you volunteered for Hope Air?

I’ve been registered with Hope Air as a volunteer pilot since 2016. I have completed 32 flights during that time which were both outbound and inbound. Flight hours range from a couple of hours, or 3-5 hours, depending on the location of our patients and the medical centers where they’re receiving treatment.

Where does Hope Air operate?

Hope Air operates Canada-wide, but our hot spots for patient travel are from interior BC and northern Ontario. Though I’ve flown across Canada multiple times, my Hope Air volunteer flights are all in Ontario because that’s where I live. Ontario alone has about 25-35 volunteer pilots. All pilots get notified about new flight missions as they occur, and they all respond accordingly. Hope Air does an excellent job of distributing the expeditions amongst all the pilots to keep them regularly involved.

Hope Air story plane image
Photo of Lee’s Diamond DA-40. A composite, low-wing aircraft made of carbon fibre.

How much flight experience does a volunteer pilot need?

Hope Air has specific requirements for volunteer pilots. You must have access to a plane, owned or rented, to volunteer and have at least 50 hours of experience on the type of plane used for Hope Air flights; I have 2200 hours of flying time. My plane is a 4-seater, Diamond DA-40, low-wing aircraft made of carbon fibre composite. I’ve had it for ten years now; it’s light and strong.

Do you need any specific skills?

Even though we don’t have medical backgrounds, my wife Marilyn has the perfect personality to converse with our passengers to put them at ease. It may be the first time in an aircraft for many patients, and she lets them know what to expect during the flight to their destination. She does a fantastic job of getting to know each patient’s story to offer a customized level of comfort. She also knows the navigation systems inside-out on our plane and is comfortable talking to traffic controllers, changing frequencies, and helping minimize my overall workload. Though Marilyn’s not a pilot, she can speak the lingo!

Why did you get involved with Hope Air?

I love to fly, and using my hobby for a great cause was a perfect fit for Marilyn and me. Since being involved with Hope Air, I’ve had many rewarding experiences that confirmed we are making a difference in patients’ lives with financial hardships in remote locations. They are all very appreciative, and it clearly shows on their faces throughout the time we spend flying them to their destinations. Pre-COVID, we regularly received a hug, and a warm thank you after each flight.

Do you have a memorable flight story?

Marilyn and I are both cancer survivors. I had non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma – stage 4, level 2 – which was quite advanced considering level 3 is the worst. Having gone through that ordeal in our lives allows us to relate to our patients personally. Though there are many beautiful stories of various patients, I have one story, in particular, that is near to my heart. We once flew a woman from Ottawa to North Bay, ON, who had the same type of lymphoma as me. I filled her in on my battle with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and how I came out the other end as a strong survivor. By sharing my experience, we created an instant bond where I felt she could relate to me; it was magical and very encouraging for both of us.

Aside from the Hope Air patients, I’m also very touched by supporters like Van Kam and other donors. Their generous involvement greatly assists in making all these flights possible. Without them, we couldn’t do it. Thanks!

Feel Like Helping Out?

As of this writing, the Give Hope Wings: Boundary Bay to Hudson Bay Expedition has successfully raised $422,385 of their $400,000 goal. Please click here if you’d like to donate online to support Lee’s fundraising efforts for Give Hope Wings.

Click here for more info on how to become a volunteer fundraiser in your community – and don’t forget to scroll down and view the profiles of other great pilots in this expedition!

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