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Woman visits terminally ill sister through donated air miles

Give A Mile has provided over 900 flights to those wishing to spend time with dying family members since 2013
Sisters Linda Desautel and Elaine Barr were able to spend quality time together in the fall of 2022 thanks to donations of air miles through Canadian charity Give A Mile.

Elaine Barr - originally from Garden River First Nation and now living in Surrey, B.C. - was recently able to spend some precious time with her terminally ill sister Linda Desautel in Sault Ste. Marie.

Her round-trip flight, travel fees and taxes were paid for by individuals who donated their air miles through Give A Mile, a volunteer-operated Canadian charity. 

Barr spent six weeks with her sister beginning in September.

“We went out driving around. We had laughs, talking about old times, we held hands. It was a great time with her. I hadn’t seen her in seven years. We had a really good time,” Barr told SooToday.

Barr was told about Give A Mile by her son-in-law.

“I felt great. It’s great. I just wanted to be with her for as long as I could,” Barr said.

“For anybody to donate air miles, it’s the greatest. They did me such an honour by sending me to the Sault. I can’t say enough about them.”

“It was so generous of them to do that for me and I urge everybody to donate air miles for people who really need to see their loved ones before they go,” Barr said.

Barr said her sister still often contacts her through FaceTime.

"I still get to see her. That’s important to me.”

Give A Mile was established by Kevin Crowe of Calgary in 2013.

“The inspiration was that I had an incredible friend by the name of Ryan Westerman. He was diagnosed with Stage 4 brain cancer. In the last year of his life he said ‘I need you here. I need someone to confide in,’” Crowe told SooToday.

Westerman died 14 years ago.

“He had a son that was four years old and he had his wife and family and friends, but he needed that extra person to be transparent with," Crowe said.

“I spent the last year with Ryan and it was an incredibly impactful, life changing time because we were in the same stage of life. We both had recently married and had young kids, our careers were going really well and yet he was in the last months of his life. He was a very inspiring guy. He was super wise and shared his feelings about the process of dying.”

“I visited him twice a week. I was in rush hour traffic and he said ‘Kev, what I would give to be in rush hour traffic on the way to work.’ He gave me those insights into the value of life. One of the things we were able to experience was that his family and friends were there, his four-year-old son came and gave his dad a last hug, and his wife was there. We saw that ‘power of visit’ and what it meant to all of us in our grieving process.”  

Crowe said that while Westerman was in hospice, he was moved that many other hospice residents were not able to receive visits from family members because they could not afford air fares.

“I heard there were literally billions of dollars in Canada of air travel miles that so many of us hold. I thought ‘why don’t we each donate a little bit of our travel miles so that families can have these visits?’”

Crowe said that since Give A Mile was launched in 2013, the charity has provided 920 flights in Canada and the U.S. as of Dec. 8, 2022 - 168 of those flights being international flights - using 35,000,000 donated air miles. 

Crowe, an information technology professional by day, calls Give A Mile his passion project.

The organization - which has grown to include approximately 30 volunteers over the last nine years - is currently in a Christmas campaign, aiming to arrange 50 flights for families who would appreciate spending time with terminally ill loved ones.

Give A Mile has arranged 39 of those flights to date.

Air Canada and United Airlines in the U.S. have partnered with Give A Mile.   

“Everything is medically verified that a situation is terminal and there is a one-page application form that is taken to a flight review team. If approved, a person is connected to a travel agent and the flight is booked,” Crowe said.

“There has been an incredible response.”

“One moment they don’t think they’re going to see their loved one again, then they get connected to Give A Mile and get a flight. One woman told me, because we were flying her daughter and granddaughter to her, that ‘this is the greatest gift somebody could give me.’”

“It’s just an incredible moment of giving,” Crowe said.

“One of our flight recipients was terminally ill and said ‘I can’t believe complete strangers are going to help me and give this to me. You don’t know what that means as I transition towards the end of my life, that humanity could do this.’”

Before Give A Mile’s team of volunteers grew, Crowe himself made the comforting phone calls to flight recipients.

“I would call the families and let them know we had a flight for them. There would be this big moment of silence and I’d say ‘it’s legitimate, you can check the website out’ but they would say ‘no, it’s not that, I just don’t have any words because this means so much to us, and thank you.’”

“The humanity, the community that’s been created, I can’t say enough about it,” Crowe said.

Air Canada and United Airlines have been “incredible partners” in making the flights happen, Crowe said.

Individuals can not only donate air miles but also make financial donations to Give A Mile, as approximately 10 per cent of flights to and from remote communities are paid for in cash, Crowe said.

Give A Mile can be reached through its website, email and Facebook.

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Darren Taylor

About the Author: Darren Taylor

Darren Taylor is a news reporter and photographer in Sault Ste Marie. He regularly covers community events, political announcements and numerous board meetings. With a background in broadcast journalism, Darren has worked in the media since 1996.
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