RACINE, Wis. — Perhaps nothing feels as good as helping a struggling child or teen.
A local police department is doing just that with the help of a team of volunteers. It's all part of the Wings to Fly program in Racine.
Smiles are more frequent for 18-year-old Justyce Nelson. It was a fun weekend — Nelson became a pilot!
But for a long time, smiles were absent from Nelson's face.
"I faced a lot of challenges since I was in high school. I lost both of my parents," she says.
Young people like Justyce are why Racine Police Officer Travis Brady organized Wings To Fly. The Racine Police Department is the first in the country to sponsor a program like this.
"It's incredibly rewarding to see the smile on their faces. We had eight students today, many have never flown in a plane. Some have already signed up for another event. It's one of the most rewarding things that we can do," Brady says.
Wings to Fly offers an experience to teens and elementary students who've faced a traumatic event. The program specifically aims to serve females and minorities. All of the pilots are volunteers — including Laurie Probst from Sheboygan falls.
"I like to give back," she says. "I went into teaching to give back and as a pilot I experience it as a second career. I'd rather give kids a chance in aviation."
The opportunity does not come cheap.
"The local EAA Chapter has a lot of scholarships to help them get their pilot license, which is about a $10,000 fee," Brady says. "So, if these kids are dedicated and they love this and they stick to it, we will continue to help them along the way. If we can get one to get their license at 16 or 18, we can set them up for a lifetime of success."
And for youth struggling, Wings to Fly is a Godsend.
"It's been very helpful. It helped me get through a lot," Nelson says. "Sometimes I thought I couldn't do it, but then I knew I had people that were there to help me, and it helped me get through a lot."
Nelson shares that during her toughest times, she was a loner, hesitating to ask for help. And she has advice for other teens overcoming loss.
"Find people that care, that are there for you. Don't push them away. I tried to push people away and it didn't work. They knew that I needed help and they stayed by me. Stick with the people that are trying to be there for you," she says.
And as the small planes lift with precious cargo, so do spirits.
"I feel fortunate, and I feel blessed to be able to give kids an opportunity I do not have. I'm living vicariously through them right now," Brady says. "To see kids, take off and wave off the plane and land with the biggest smile they possibly can and to be given a flight jacket which is a statement piece in aviation, we are giving them a gift. We can literally change the dynamics of a family through a one-day event."
Thanks to Wings to Fly, earth angels make it easier for young ladies like Nelson to rise.
"I feel like I'm doing good, like I've accomplished a lot. I feel like I'm doing this for [my parents] to make them proud."
And officer Brady smiles as he watches the young people take to the air.
"It's so rewarding watching them!"
Nelson flashes a bright beautiful smile as she poses for pictures.