Parents said a trip to an East Coast summer camp ended in stress and trauma for nine children with a tumor-causing disease after an overnight delay in an airport left them without access to their medications.
The incident has moved the Kelso nonprofit that sponsored the trip to speak out against American Airlines.
“American Airlines failed big-time, and my personal goal is to see a policy change,” said Maggie Kennedy, community relations director and family recruitment coordinator with the Dino Doozer Foundation in Kelso.
The Dino Doozer Foundation works to help children with neurofibromatosis (NF), a rare genetic disease that causes tumors to grow on the spinal cord, nerves and in the brain. Symptoms can include fine motor skills impairment, hearing and vision problems, seizures and mild learning disabilities.
Every year for the last decade, Dino Doozer has raised money to send afflicted children to Camp New Friends, a summer camp in Virginia for children ages 7 to 17 with the disease. The camp seeks to reduce the stigma and isolation associated with NF as well as connect children to peers and adults who also have the disease.
“It’s not just about swimming and canoeing. … It’s strength and conditioning and encouragement for the condition they live with,” said Kennedy, whose son attended the camp with Dino Doozer when he was younger and now volunteers there. “All of the things that go into it are pretty profound.”
This year Dino Doozer sent 12 kids to camp, including two from Longview, one from Kelso and others from Everett, Beaverton, Eugene and Bend. The Longview and Kelso students were among those involved in the delay.
On their way home from camp, nine of the campers spent nearly 16 hours in a North Carolina airport after their Friday night flight was delayed due to mechanical problems with the plane, Kennedy said. (The three other campers booked a different flight home.) For a portion of their wait, they were left alone on a plane as it waited on the tarmac, she said.
Eventually the kids were taken to a room inside the airport, and staff unknowingly separated them from their medications when they forced the children to check their carry-on bags, Kennedy said.
During their wait, the children didn’t receive adequate access to meals or bathrooms, and many of them skipped doses of their medication, Kennedy said. They also had limited access to chargers to stay in contact with their parents.
“We had 17- and 14-year-old girls trying to play mom. … All the kids are all dealing with the effects of PTSD,” Kennedy said.
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In an email to The Daily News, American Airlines representatives said the children were “kept in our dedicated unaccompanied minor room where they were kept safe and comfortable in the care of American Airlines personnel at all times. They departed on Saturday morning.”
The company declined to comment further.
“We won’t be sharing additional details about the children’s flight experience as we work directly with the families involved to make this right,” the email says.
The Dino Doozer children usually fly out to camp alone, and the foundation pays extra for an unaccompanied minor service provided by the airline. On American Airlines, that costs about $300 more per ticket, and it provides children traveling without an adult with a chaperone to help them board the plane, make any connecting flights and find their parents or guardians after the flight lands.
The families don’t always share complete details of their child’s medical conditions, but the airline is aware that the kids have special needs because “It’s a medical camp that was dropping them off,” Kennedy said.
She noted that in the 10 years Dino Doozer has sent kids to camp, “nothing like this has ever happened.”
“Our founder used to go to this camp, and he flew out several years unaccompanied before the (Dino Doozer) foundation ever began,” Kennedy said, adding that “the parents are being attacked for putting these kids on the plane (alone). … I challenge that with ‘Why not?’ Why should these children not have the opportunity to fly on an airplane? What makes them so different that they can’t?”
Kennedy said Dino Doozer board members are gathering for an emergency meeting Tuesday to discuss the next steps, and the foundation continues to stay in contact with parents.
She declined to share whether Dino Doozer will seek legal action against the airlines, but the organization does plan to continue sending children to Camp New Friends.
“These kids had the most traumatic experience possible, and the first thing they did was apologize to me about what happened and then begged me to go back to camp next year,” she said.