There’s nothing quite like flying in a small plane. You’re close to the ground and able to see for miles in a perspective different from life’s typical views. For Gary Oberstein ’86 and Martha Calbick Oberstein ’84, small aircraft flying seemed an ideal way to provide a temporary sojourn for those who seemed to need it most.
Their non-profit, Above the Clouds—which literally got off the ground in May—provides one-time flights for children who have life-threatening illnesses or come from disadvantaged backgrounds, as well as pilot training for underprivileged teenagers in the Boston area.
The journey to help others began with a birthday present eight years ago.
“Martha bought me a flight for fun for my 41st birthday. I’ve been flying ever since,” Gary says. “For charities I represent or sit on the board of, I’d start to let them auction me and my plane off in their charity auctions, at their galas. Someone would win me in the auction and I’d take them up on a flight. I did this one time in particular for some kids, because the person who won the flight gave the flight back to the charity to give to children whom the charity serves. I ended up flying these disadvantaged kids from inner-city Boston.”
It made an impact on him, as well as the children, he says. There began the idea to create his own charity offering flights to the disadvantaged and seriously ill.
The charity was created in December 2012 and its flights began in May. Since then, more than 30 flights, with over 100 individuals, have flown in Above the Clouds’ Dream Flyers program and two teenagers are enrolled in its Cadet Flyers program.
For Dream Flyers, the Obersteins work with Floating Hospital for Children at Tufts Medical Center. The hospital chooses the children and talks with parents about Above the Clouds, Martha says. The same is true for a few social service agencies that also recommend children.
Once a flight is set up, it’s a no-holds-barred effort to make it special, she says. Signs, applause, and food are part of the party, thanks to nearly 40 volunteers—including the Obersteins’ daughter, Dorian, a Vassar sophomore. Each child also gets a personalized flight jacket and a pair of aviator sunglasses.
“The kids get to fly themselves. They get to actually sit in the co-pilot seat of the small plane. We go up, we fly over their house, over Fenway Park and Gillette Stadium, and things like that. At the right moment, the pilot gives the child an opportunity to actually take the controls all by themselves and fly the plane,” Gary says.
“A lot of these kids have really lost control. They’re spending so much time at the hospital—they’re constantly being told what to do and when to do it—and they’re very seriously ill,” Martha says, noting the story of one 17-year-old from Binghamton, N.Y. “She said to me, ‘It was incredible to be in control.’ This was a girl who, since she was three, has been coming once a month to a hospital in Boston for one week every month of her life.”
The Cadet Flyers program offers a different experience, although still exhilarating, Gary says. Above the Clouds works with four social service agencies that recommend a total of eight teenagers for Aviation Day, when the teenagers go to Norwood Memorial Airport in Norwood, Mass., to learn about various careers and the financial backing available for positions including air traffic controller, mechanic, pilot, and more.
The organization then chooses two teenagers to participate in the Cadet Flyers program. The kids need to sign a pledge and there are rules to stay in the program, including staying in school, completing required pilot training reading, and staying alcohol- and drug-free, Gary says.
“The key here is that we’re using aviation and flying an airplane as the motivational tool to attract the cadet flyer to break whatever cycle they’re currently in. They’re so excited. This isn’t a basketball program, it’s not an after school program, it’s not a ride your bike program—it’s a learn how to solo fly a plane program. It’s just incredibly different and unusual, and incredibly cool for a lot of kids,” Gary says.
Now that it’s starting to get its wings underneath it, Above the Clouds is continuing to grow. Though it means much work and many weekends spent flying, the Obersteins say it’s hard to find regrets about their endeavor amid the smiling faces and squeals of delight.
—By Debbie Swartz
—Photos provided by Above the Clouds
For more information, visit abovethecloudskids.org.