MANSFIELD -- Two Mansfield boys and their mother had the chance to see Christmas lights from a new perspective Sunday night.
Angela Brown and her husband Ben often spend December evenings driving Bronson, 8, and Benson, 4, around the city looking for festive displays -- partly because it's affordable family fun and partly because they want to create lasting memories for the boys, especially Bronson who has a rare ocular disease.
These short road trips feature loops around Mansfield neighborhoods in their Toyota 4Runner and frequently end with a cup of hot chocolate at home. But on Sunday, the Browns opted for a different type of transportation, a 1974 Cessna airplane, thanks to Mansfield-based nonprofit, The Visual Bucket List Foundation and volunteer pilot, Darren Hamilton.
"This lets us see the lights from a different view," Angela said. "I think it's really an opportunity to experience something you typically don’t, and for Bronson, we never know what the future holds for him, so this is really awesome for him to see this."
At age 3, Bronson was diagnosed with combined hammartoma of the retinal pigment epithelium (RPE) and choroid, a disease that can cause progressive vision loss. Bronson is already blind in his right eye.
Minutes before sunset at the Mansfield Lahm Airport, Angela Brown boarded the plane with her two boys, while her husband watched nearby. There wasn't room for all four of them and Hamilton.
"I feel awesome," Bronson said.
He was quick to crawl into the passenger seat beside Hamilton, while his mother and brother climbed into the back seat.
Hamilton, an operations group commander at the 179th Airlift Wing, expressed intentions to take the family for a 30- to 45-minute ride. He's been flying children for The Visual Bucket List Foundation for several years.
"Maybe three years ago, the airport manager here got a call from Steve (Myers), and he said, 'We’d like to take our daughter up for an airplane ride,'" Hamilton said.
At that time, Myers, founder of The Visual Bucket List Foundation, was trying to fulfill one of his daughter's own wishes. Lizzy, now 8, was diagnosed in 2015 with Usher’s Syndrome, a rare genetic condition which will likely cause her to lose both her hearing and vision during adolescence.
"It worked out that night was really clear, so I suggested we go out then, so they came out here and we met," Hamilton said.
He flew Lizzy and her father across Mansfield into Lexington, pointing out Christmas lights along the way to the Myers' house.
"The only house without lights was ours," Myers said. "So when Darren said, 'Where’s your house?' and Lizzy said, 'the black hole,' I was guilted into hanging lights, and I have hung them every year since."
Realizing the value of this and other memories for their daughter, Myers and his wife, Christine started The Visual Bucket List Foundation in an effort to pay it forward to other children who could also lose their vision.
The next year, he arranged December flights for Kenlee and Kylin Stone, of Shelby, who recently went to Disney World through the foundation. After a year off, Myers arranged several more flights, including the one for the Browns. Others will be coming for rides from other parts of Ohio on Tuesday night.
"We’d love for more kids to have this opportunity. It’s a unique memory that I think would stick," Myers said, adding that his foundation only organizes the flights. The cost is entirely covered by Hamilton.
When the plane landed Sunday, Bronson had lots to say about the experience.
"It was awesome. We saw a few houses with lights, and he let me steer, and go up and down," the boy said.
When his mother asked if he'd remember it, he nodded his head in agreement.
"Bronson, he was in heaven. He loved it. He was so into it," Angela said.
She also enjoyed the views of the sunset and the lights at Kingwood Center Gardens.
Later in the evening, Hamilton took Myers and his two daughters for a flight, too. He planned to go on two flights, so when the second family canceled, he offered the experience to Lizzy again -- this time with her younger sister Kayla coming along.
"I love flying, so to share flying with kids, that’s a great experience," Hamilton said.