Long before the rest of us understood social distancing, Levi Schreiber was a professional at it.
He had to be.
In July 2017, doctors diagnosed Levi — then 9 years old — with a fast-moving form of leukemia after discovering a growth in his chest the size of a cantaloupe.
His prognosis was promising. 90% of kids beat that form of cancer. But doing so requires years of chemotherapy, a treatment that leaves patients frail, exhausted, and immunocompromised.
“You can’t go places,” Levi’s mother, Teresa, said. “You’re isolated. You don’t have a lot to look forward to.”
Winter is the worst, as the flu season poses a life-threatening risk. By Fall 2019, Levi had already left school for the academic year to attend class from home. The hunker-down doldrums were beginning to set in. But an experience made possible by two Ball State alums gave Levi and the rest of the Schreiber family the lift they needed.
On October 25, Levi, now 12, and his sister Tyra, 15, each flew a Cessna 172 Skyhawk around the eastside of Indianapolis with a flight instructor from a nonprofit called Flight1.
Yes, they actually flew the plane.
“No barrel rolls,” Levi joked. “When I turned — it wasn’t a harsh turn — but it felt like the whole plane was on its side. I was on the downside. I could see down on a lake (Geist Reservoir) where a bunch of rich people live. I was like, wow, this is so amazing.”
A sense of accomplishment
Founded in 2011, Flight1 is a one-of-a-kind, Indianapolis-based organization that uses the joy of flight to build confidence in kids affected by health challenges.
In the air, the kids take the yoke and have full control of the airplane — at a time when almost everything else in their lives seems out of their hands. For 30 minutes, they leave their worries on the ground and experience the joy of flight.
Private pilot Marcus Strawhorn started the program with his wife, Sandy (Trigg), who now manages day-to-day operations as program director. Both graduated from Ball State in 1998, Marcus with a biology degree and Sandy with a business management degree.
It’s very rewarding to see the instant change in the kids,” Marcus said. “It’s very clear they see themselves differently and have a sense of accomplishment.
Last year, Flight1 served 87 kids. This year, the organization hopes to serve 100.
Children are eligible for Flight1 if they are ill or if they have an ill parent or sibling. About 40% of children in Flight1 are themselves ill; the rest are externally impacted, according to Sandy.
Families pay nothing.
Donors, partners, and volunteers provide everything.
A Flight1 experience involves six activities over the course of several months: three flights in a simulator and three flights with an instructor. The organization operates out of the Vincennes University Aviation Technology Center near Indianapolis International Airport.
The idea for Flight1 grew out of Marcus’ desire to leave behind a legacy.
Because, at the time, he didn’t know how much longer he would live.
Doing something big
After college, Marcus accepted a research position with Eli Lilly and Company.
He has been with the company since then, and in recent years he has served in quality assurance for insulin manufacturing.
In 2010, Marcus was 35 years old, married to Sandy, and had two sons, ages 4 and 7. He began having unusual symptoms. He thought it might be a food allergy. So, he scheduled an appointment with his doctor.
“At the end of that appointment, he believed I had a rare form of abdominal cancer,” Marcus said.
Those with the cancer had a life expectancy of 2-10 years. But, test after test gave inconclusive results, and for six months, Marcus wondered whether he was dying. His confidence crashed, and he could see how his state of mind was affecting his sons.
Marcus began to think about how he was going to compress a lifetime of fatherhood into a few years.
Fortunately, he didn’t have to.
After visiting three hospitals over those six months, including a weeklong stay at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, doctors determined Marcus did not have cancer but something much less serious.
Still, Marcus wasn’t about to return to life as normal.
Having come to terms with his mortality, having stared down a death sentence, Marcus was determined to do something big with the rest of his life. His thoughts kept returning to three themes: kids, confidence, and aviation.
The result was Flight1.
“Flight1 was my husband’s vision, truly,” Sandy said.
The vision doesn’t end with Indianapolis, either. Soon, Flight1hopes to expand to other cities throughout the country.
“The program is built so we can replicate it,” Marcus said.
The freedom of flight
The medical scare wasn’t the first time Marcus had struggled with confidence.
As a kid growing up in Ossian, Indiana, just south of Fort Wayne, he was both the youngest and the smallest in his class. His classmates picked on him.
“But when I got my pilot’s license, I saw myself differently,” he said. “It didn’t change how people treated me, but it changed how I saw myself.”
Marcus’ dad was a pilot for Northwest Airlines and also a flight instructor. Marcus admired his dad. He thought it was cool that his dad was a pilot, and he wanted to learn to fly also.
“He didn’t want me to become a commercial pilot,” Marcus said. “It’s hard on family life. He said he would teach me how to fly as long as I promised not to become a commercial airline pilot. I stayed true to my promise.”
The Strawhorns didn’t own a plane, but they belonged to a club that granted dues-paying members access to a Piper Cherokee.
Marcus began learning and even flying solo before he could drive.
“If I could get to the airport, I could fly anywhere,” he said. “The challenge was getting to the airport.”
He earned his pilot’s license around the same time he earned his driver’s license.
“It seemed so impossible,” he said. And yet, he did it.
While the kids in Flight1 don’t earn a license, many report a similar sense of accomplishment and freedom.
“Just to be in a plane and be behind the controls and do whatever you want,” Sandy said. “There’s nothing else that can give you that. When you are in the air, there are no stop signs, no stoplights. You are free to go wherever you want.”
Thinking about the future
Levi’s cancer story began with a cough.
His parents, Teresa and Patrick, were suspicious. It was July in 2017, well past the normal cold and flu season. A week later, he told his parents that he was tired and that things smelled and tasted weird.
Teresa, a nurse, took Levi to his pediatrician, half expecting the doctor to tell her that those symptoms made no sense, that she was crazy, that nothing was wrong. Instead, doctors scanned his chest and found the growth.
The next day, they went to a pediatric oncologist, and lab work showed that three- quarters of the boy’s blood was actually cancer cells.
What followed was nine months of intensive chemo at Riley Hospital for Children in Indianapolis.
“You stand on the sidelines, completely helpless, literally watching your child wasting away,” Teresa said. “I couldn’t even hold him or hug him because his bones and muscles hurt so bad.”
Since 2018, Levi has been in a maintenance phase. It sounds easy, but it’s not. On Fridays he takes 25 pills.
Levi and his sister, Tyra, learned about Flight1 through a summer field trip to the hangar at Vincennes University Aviation Technology Center. Little Red Door, a nonprofit that supports families affected by cancer, sponsored the trip.
When Teresa picked the kids up from that field trip, it was the most excited she had seen Tyra in months. Both said they wanted to give Flight1 a shot.
“I said, ‘How much does that cost?’ because we owe IU Health tens of thousands of dollars,” Teresa recalled.
At first, she didn’t believe her kids when they told her it was free.
Since the first flight on October 25, Tyra has decided she wants to be a commercial pilot and has plans to study aviation through a vocational technology program at her high school. Levi said he wants to fly the plane that pulls a Geico banner around Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
The kids have two more flights left. “The Flight1 organization is incredible,” Teresa said. “The kids are completely in control of what is happening, and control is something none of us has right now, especially Levi. To have that kind of experience, and to not have to pay a dime, it’s incredible.”