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Soaring expectations

Nonprofit Pegasus Project lifts off in Auburn
By: Jenifer Gee, Journal Staff Writer
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Upon meeting Andrew Garcia, you quickly find out that his constant ear-to-ear grin is only matched in magnitude by his sense of adventure. On Saturday, a wheel-chair bound Garcia took that explorer’s spirit to new heights as part of the launch of a new local nonprofit aimed to provide an above-this-world experience to children with special needs. Garcia, a 20-year-old Modesto high school student, was diagnosed with cerebral palsy and a brain seizure disorder since birth. Due to his illness, Garcia has the cognitive level of a 7- or 8-year-old. Over the weekend, he was the first participant in the inaugural flight of a recently launched Pegasus Project. The Pegasus Project, founded in 2006 by Cool resident Lance Bartczak, is a nonprofit corporation that provides free helicopter flights to children suffering or who have suffered serious, life-threatening or chronic illness. The project is funded entirely through donations, grants and gifts. “We at the Pegasus Project are honored he (Garcia) will forever remain our first,” Bartczak said in a small ceremony before takeoff. The idea for the Pegasus Project began to grow wings in the early 1980s when Lance Bartczak took a friend’s child who had leukemia on a helicopter flight. The child’s joyful reaction touched him forever, he said. At the time, Lance and his wife, Marie, thought that one day offering helicopter flights to children living with debilitating illnesses would be a great idea for a nonprofit corporation. Now, the corporation has officially taken off. Marie Bartczak said they have already received several applications from children and their families. She said the nonprofit is purely at a grassroots level for now. Both she and Lance Bartczak have full-time jobs separate from the nonprofit, which has itself turned into a full-time hobby, she added. Marie and Lance Bartczak both agreed that there was no better first passenger than Garcia. “He really stood out as a kid who wanted to have some adventure in his life,” Marie Bartczak said. Garcia’s mother, Susan, could attest to that. The 20-year-old has a seated ski, he rides snowmobiles, learned to surf at camp, plays basketball, swims and lifts weights with his dad. Susan Garcia said so far the only thing she won’t let her son do is rock climbing. And even though the thought of him taking a helicopter ride initially made her stomach toss with nerves, Susan Garcia said she couldn’t stop her son from enjoying an “amazing” opportunity. “I try not to hold him back,” Susan Garcia said. But she was holding onto her son’s shirt as she sat behind him in the four-person helicopter the nonprofit leases from Sierra Air Helicopters. The Auburn-based company donates part of the lease to the nonprofit. “Who wouldn’t want to be a part of something so special?” said Darcy Brewer, a volunteer with Sierra Air Helicopters. After takeoff, Lance Bartczak took Andrew Garcia, Garcia’s mother and Garcia’s father, David, on an aerial tour that included flying over the American River and going up to Blue Canyon where they estimated they saw about 6 inches of snowfall on the ground. As the helicopter returned from its almost hour-long journey, Andrew Garcia waved and gave the thumbs up sign to bystanders waiting below. When asked what his first helicopter flight was like, Andrew Garcia enthusiastically responded, “It was cool.” He added that he saw houses and they look “a lot smaller” from up above. Susan Garcia said her son never stopped smiling. She added that she could feel him “tensing up” when he got excited. “It was just really neat,” Susan Garcia said. “He’ll go back and tell people that he was flying the helicopter.” David Garcia said he was glad the Pegasus Project was able to give his son a memorable experience. “I think there are a lot of kids who should take advantage of this and see things they’d never see,” David Garcia said. Marie Bartczak said she hopes the nonprofit can grow to the point where they have several children taking helicopter rides on one day. She said the nonprofit plans to record each of its flights through photos and films. Eventually, they will compile the images into a documentary they hope to show at elementary schools to help school-age children overcome obstacles in their lives. The project has also connected with Golden State Donor Services to work as a backup for aerial organ transportation to and from local hospitals. For Lance Bartczak, seeing a project he envisioned more than 20 years ago come to fruition Saturday was a surreal experience. “It doesn’t really feel real,” Lance Bartczak said. “I feel like it’s a total blessing that it’s come this far. I’m really grateful.” The Journal’s Jenifer Gee can be reached at jeniferg@goldcountrymedia.com or post a comment at auburnjournal.com.