KILLEEN — Flying a plane is on some people’s bucket lists, and at the ripe old age of 12, Cayli Katz got to check that box Saturday.
Twenty-two families in the Harker Heights Superhero Adaptive Sports program boarded several small planes at the Central Texas College hangar in Killeen for the flight of a lifetime.
“Seeing their faces light up when they see the planes is what it’s all about for me,” said Paul Hansen, founder of Flying Vikings, a nonprofit organization based in Temple that puts kids facing terminal illnesses or with disabilities in command by letting them take the controls during a flight.
Cayli’s parents, Jennifer and Howard Katz, said they watched their daughter blossom since she began participating in the Superhero program.
“She’s always wanted to play sports, but she can’t keep up with the other kids and she has been made fun of for that in the past,” said Jennifer Katz about her daughter, who has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, dyslexia and autism. “She feels really comfortable here and can be herself. As parents, we will do anything to put a smile on her face.”
With so many doctors’ appointments filling up days on calendars, families got to enjoy the day together worry free.
“Her self-esteem was starting to waver, and the program has helped her come out of her shell,” Howard Katz said. “She is learning the values of teamwork and helping others less fortunate than her.”
As Cayli made her preflight checks before take-off, she said she couldn’t wait to soar above the clouds.
“I’m excited and nervous all at the same time,” Cayli said, affixing her headset and getting buckled in.
Volunteer pilots flew the young flyers over Stillhouse Hollow Lake and gave them a bird’s-eye view of Central Texas, turning over the controls once they reached cruising altitude.
JJ Rentz, 7, squirming in his wheelchair, could hardly wait for his turn to pilot a plane.
“He just loves planes and rockets,” his mom, Kristina Rentz, said. “How often do you get the opportunity to let your kid fly?”
She said it’s rare to find people like Hansen and the pilots with the patience to work with children with special needs like her son, who has cerebral palsy.
“We run into a lot of judgement, so it’s really comforting to be in an environment without hostility,” she said.
Home Depot and Kohls Cares donated items to keep kids busy while they waited their turn to fly. Papa Johns, Bush’s Chicken, Chick-fil-A and Chili’s donated lunch.
“We are just always looking for new and innovative ways to bring families together,” said Lori Briere, recreation superintendent.
For more information on the superhero program, call 254-953-5657.
To learn more about Flying Vikings, go to http://flyingvikings.org.