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All Things Are Possible

kelli-bartlett-
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Southwest supports many special children's charities.  Challenge Air for Kids & Friends is one of those charities very close to our hearts.  Southwest Employees support Challenge Air in many ways, including volunteering for the Fly Day events. Participating in just one Fly Day is all it takes for these children capture your hearts, and from then on, it's LUV forever! The Fly Days are held in 14 different cities for children with disabilities or special needs, and it's a day for these children to leave their limitations behind--a chance to climb into the cockpit and be the Copilot! To see a child assisted into one of these airplanes, some in a wheelchair unable to walk, is a moving and heartfelt experience. Oftentimes we have to focus on their sheer excitement just to hold back our own tears! For many of these children, this is their one feeling of freedom, freed from their limitations by being able to fly above the clouds! Fly Days are the events they look forward to all year! Many of the volunteers and Pilots are from Southwest Airlines, and some are retired.  There are also many other commercial and private Pilots that make up the team. On Fly Days, we're just one big happy aviation family, flying for the same cause...the Kids! These Pilots all have one thing in common (aside from their pilot license)--they all have a great big heart! Of course, all volunteers are appreciated on Fly Days, and everyone is encouraged to visit Challengeair.com and sign up to help at one of these events. Last month was the 14th Annual Challenge Air Awards Auction Dinner.  There are many generous donors, such as MAV Aircraft Services in Fort Worth who hosted the fundraiser event at their facility, and Airbus France donated some wonderful auction items as well as a tour of their Airbus facility!  The gala was attended by many supporters, board members, volunteers and friends. Southwest was recognized for living up to this year's gala theme, "All THINGS POSSIBLE" by providing travel for staff and volunteers across the country.   This has allowed the growth of Fly Days to many additional cities! Along with the other Flight Attendant volunteers, we were thrilled to see some old friends at the gala. One of the honored Challenge Air Board Members, Jeff Shaffner happens to be one of our personal friends and a man we all  LUV and admire! Captain Jeff was hired by Southwest as a Pilot in 1983. Jeff has always had the movie star good looks, athletic build with a sense for adventure and a personality to go along with it. In August 1988, Jeff was in a serious water skiing accident which ended his commercial flying career due to a spinal injury.  It has been 20 years since his accident confined him in a wheelchair, but Jeff has put his love of flying and compassionate heart to work as he became a member of the volunteer Pilot team for Challenge Air, one of their inspirational wheelchair aviators. Jeff flew two airplanes for Challenge Air; a Cessna 177 Cardinal and a Cessna 337 Skymaster. Jeff explained how his airplanes use a hand-held control somewhat like a tiller on a boat that operates the steering on the ground as well as breaking and rudder in the air. Jeff said the best organization to help any disabled pilot learn to fly is International Wheelchair Aviators (IWA). We shared with Jeff our admiration for him and asked if we could mention him in the Nuts About Southwest blog and include his involvement with Challenge Air.  He has always been a man of great strength and our hero in many ways.  There is no surprise in how Captain Jeff replied to our request because true givers are always the first to give credit to others.  He told me: "I appreciate the offer to be recognized in the SW blog, however much of what I have learned in my adjustment to a new way of life was learned from the challenged kids that I've had the good fortune to fly with and be around for 14 years. They are the "real story" here... They are truly tenacious and driven and they repeat that behavior every day - that is inspiring!  I don't think I'd be anywhere near where I am if it hadn't been for that opportunity which I randomly fell into. I tried a lot of things after my injury--computer science school, law school, real estate investing and developing, commodities trader, etc. "The most fulfilling and happiest times I experienced were in the company of those kids, their parents and families, and the volunteers. You know how good it feels to work with these folks; you know how special those volunteers are to be giving of themselves. You really see how much these parents love these children; they really don't want to get in those little airplanes but they'll do it for those children! I've also had the good fortune to become involved with the Rotary Club here in Ft. Lauderdale. They are great supporters of Challenge Air for Kids and Friends, and they give of themselves so freely. I am still trying to figure it all out; I am very aware that I have a lot to learn and much room to grow. One thing that I am not confused about is that one of the reasons we're put on this earth is to serve...I consider myself a very lucky person to have been able to be influenced and inspired by such a great group. If you look around, it doesn't take long to figure out that if you can be around children, airplanes, dogs, and great volunteers, you have it pretty good. I am really glad you are all involved; it is a genuine recipe for happiness." Captain Jeff now serves on the board of Challenge Air, and he is an amazing inspiration and role model to these children that come out for the Fly Days. Imagine a child in a wheelchair coming out to fly in an airplane...then to learn that one of the Pilots, Captain Jeff is in a wheelchair too.  Hope, Faith, and All Things Are Possible!  For so many of these children, their attitude in believing helps them to overcome some of their own difficulties and limitations! Although Captain Jeff is the first to give others credit, it is his attitude and belief in life's purpose to serve others that inspires so many! Captain Jeff gives from the heart, and he is still Living the Southwest Way! I don't believe he just randomly fell into the Challenge Air opportunity. No, I think he was placed there as an Angel on Earth... making a difference in the lives of so many children, families and friends!  Thank you Captain Jeff Shaffner. You will always be an inspiration to all of us, forever our hero and always a part of our Family here at Southwest Airlines!
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