Lori Christine Fergusson 1955-2008 - Macleans.ca

Lori Christine Fergusson 1955-2008

She helped disadvantaged kids, some seriously ill, others with mental challenges, realize their dreams

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Lori Christine Fergusson

Lori Christine Fergusson (née Hayes) was born in Winnipeg on Aug. 26, 1955, with the love of travel bred into her genes. Her father, James Hayes, was a porter with CP Rail. Her mother, Florence, a part-time cleaner with the Canadian National Railway, held the fort during her husband’s frequent travels. In all, Lori had six siblings, and she would frequently have to hold her own against the teasing of her three brothers, Florence recalls.

Lori was a shy and gentle spirit, with a love of children and a compassion for strays. “Animals used to always follow her home,” Florence says. “Especially cats. I guess she was just a lovable girl.” She attended Elmwood High School in Winnipeg, and, after a stint working for Zellers, she joined Air Canada in 1987. “She liked travelling,” says Florence. It was after a transfer to Air Canada’s Vancouver operations in 1991 that Lori found the passion that consumed the rest of her life.

Airline volunteers in Toronto had started a charity in 1989, which raised funds to send a planeload of disadvantaged children to Walt Disney World. The first flight, in 1990, sent 68 children and 32 escorts on a whirlwind one-day trip to Florida. The idea inspired Lori. Shortly after her transfer she helped establish a Vancouver chapter. In 1993, Lori, and by now a small army of volunteers, led the first group of 125 B.C. children—some seriously ill, others with mental or financial challenges—on a trip to Disneyland in California. As far as Lori was concerned, it was love at first flight.

From then on Lori had two jobs: her full-time work for Air Canada guest relations, and her all-consuming charity work as founding Vancouver president of Dreams Take Flight. The charity grew to eight Canadian cities, and Air Canada stations in Los Angeles and Tampa. It offers trips each year to some 1,000 children. For a time, Lori also served as the charity’s national president.

Monica Tepper, a Vancouver manager of inflight services for Air Canada, is in her 12th year as a volunteer with Dreams, the last eight as vice-president. “What inspired me to keep going with Dreams was Lori’s passion for it,” she says. It was 12 years ago that Lori met Logan Fergusson, now a purchaser for an upscale Vancouver hotel. They were introduced through a mutual friend at a party. “Things didn’t exactly go as planned,” recalls Logan. Through a comic misunderstanding, each left thinking that the other was gay. That got sorted out within days, and they were married six months later.

Marrying Lori carried a stipulation. “I married her charity as well,” Logan says. Although each flight is but one very long, very eventful day, it requires a year’s worth of planning, fundraising and logistics. Like Lori, Logan was hooked on Dreams from his first flight, 11 years ago. “I got to realize how small my world had been until then,” he says. “It’s amazing the strength these kids have. Just seeing them actually become children again on that day is just huge.” Lori and he were unable to have children, says Logan. “So her life was dedicated to other people’s kids—kids that really needed help.”Lori was diagnosed with brain cancer in February 2007. She battled through it with surgery, radiation treatments and chemotherapy, refusing, of course, to miss that year’s Disney trip on the third Tuesday in October. “We thought we’d kicked it by December,” says Logan. Lori’s work earned her an Art of Excellence award by Air Canada, which included a free trip to anywhere. The couple celebrated by going to Australia last January. Lori had befriended a girl named Amber, who was too sick with cancer to make the 2007 Dreams flight. Amber had given Lori a purple balloon, on which she’d drawn a face and pasted on yarn for hair. Lori took the balloon, named Leila, to Australia. At key points on the trip she’d inflate Leila, and Logan would take their picture. Lori made an album, says Logan, “so Amber saw Australia through Leila’s eyes.”

The cancer, a particularly aggressive and invasive strain, returned in April, says Logan. Monica, who has stepped in as president, remembers her friend urging her to keep Dreams alive. “Which we’re going to do,” says Monica. “We’ve got to keep her legacy going.” Amber grew stronger. Lori grew weaker. She used the last of her fading strength to help organize this year’s event. On Oct. 21, confined to a wheelchair, Lori made her last trip to Disneyland. Among the 125 excited children aboard was Amber—one of 2,000 children over 16 years to whom Lori helped give the gift of a single, magical day. She died on Nov. 12, barely three weeks later, her last wish fulfilled. “Dreams,” says her husband, “was her dream.”