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Schneider patients visit Santa at North Pole

Everyone knows Santa Claus leaves the North Pole once a year on Christmas, but some children can still pay him a visit up there.

A group of young patients from Schneider Children’s Hospital made that trip Saturday, with some help from the US Airways crew at LaGuardia Airport. Nearly 40 families took part in the 16th-annual Fantasy Flight to St. Nick’s home aboard a festively decorated Airbus 321 jet.

The party began at the airline’s terminal where the children were greeted by elves and the Police Department band that played various holiday tunes.

“It takes away that thought of being sick. So despite being sick, you can socialize with others,” said Maria LaRocque of Jamaica, who was flying with her 13-year-old daughter, Marissa John, a cancer patient.

The special flight has been going on for more than a decade and hospital officials say it is the most anticipated event of the year for both the children and staff.

Richard Galante, a social worker at the New Hyde Park medical center who helped organize the event, said most of the children, especially the ones who have to stay in the hospital for long-term care, are not able to enjoy Christmas like normal children, so this flight gives them a chance to celebrate the holiday.

“It stops their world of cancer and it brings them back to who they are: children,” he said. “Everyone knows the spirit. You can see it in their hearts.”

After checking in with their boarding passes and taking their seats, the families sang a variety of Christmas carols as the plane took off and headed north. The rush of the jet wowed the kids, including Daja Waithe, 9, of Jamaica.

“It was so fun. It was so awesome,” she said after the plane landed.

When the families entered the North Pole’s terminal, they were greeted with even more Christmas fun, including Santa and Mrs. Claus, who presented the children with an assortment of gifts, snacks and games. Although the kids were the ones having fun with the treats, their parents were also elated with the party.

“Just seeing my son smiling and being happy makes me happy,” said Dora Brunette of Long Island City whose son, Jake, 3, is an outpatient for a rare case of anemia that requires frequent blood transfusions.

The flight was actually a simulation created by taxiing the plane around the runway to another entrance at the terminal, but it did not stop the flight crew from having some fun as well. Flight attendant Jane Schwarz has been volunteering her time for the flight for the last decade and said the event keeps on getting better and better.

“You can’t beat it. It makes me feel good and it makes them feel good,” she said.

Capt. Jim Flanigan, who piloted the plane, agreed and said the event really touches the crew.

“It does more for your insides more than anything else,” said the pilot, who brought along his own family for the trip.

Reach reporter Ivan Pereira by e-mail at ipereira@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 146.

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