Pembroke — Larry Warden of Pembroke has built up quite an impressive resume over his lifetime. He has been a high school teacher, a flight instructor at Algonquin College in Pembroke, a commercial air pilot and instructor for the former Pem-Air, and a contractor with the United States Coast Guard.
Today, Mr. Warden can add humanitarian to the list.
In early September, Mr. Warden and a group of retired pilots, some of whom reside in Fort Lauderdale during the winter months, began organizing the collection of food, drinks, clothes, school supplies and other everyday items for survivors of one of this year’s most devastating disasters.
Hurricane Dorian was the most intense tropical cyclone on record to strike the Bahamas, and is regarded as the worst natural disaster in the country’s history. It was also one of the most powerful hurricanes recorded in the Atlantic Ocean in terms of one-minute sustained winds, with these winds peaking at 185 mph.
Not only are Mr. Walden and his friends collecting the items, but they are delivering them from Fort Myers to the Bahamas on their small engine airplanes. When they are not helping a population decimated by the hurricane, they are actively fundraising to help purchase supplies that may seem routine for most people, but for the survivors living with no roof over their homes, if they even have a home, the supplies are needed just to help them stay alive and live another day in order to rebuild their shattered homeland.
“Before September 1 of this year, our Sundowners Flying Club was contracted by the U.S. Coast Guard the last 10 years to fly along the Florida coast in coastal patrols looking for boaters in distress and that was my job for the last 10 years,” he said from inside the Pembroke Airport while home for the Christmas break. “But after September 1 when Dorion hit, our mandate changed and we started relief missions to fly to the Bahamas.”
When he moved to Florida for six months of the year in 2009, he was hoping to slow down and enjoy time with his wife who had just retired. Soon after his arrival, he attended an aviation show and saw a display for the Sundowners and being a pilot, he immediately bonded with many fellow retired pilots. They flew for the sheer joy of flying and to assist the U.S. Coast Guard as a way to develop a life in Florida.
He was not paid for the daily flights as they are considered volunteers. He had to qualify for an American pilot’s license and the regulations that govern all pilots.
“If you had asked me 10 years ago if I would be flying over a country that looks like the photos from World War II where nothing is left standing and all you see is destruction, I probably would have just shook my head,” he said. “Ask me today and I can tell you there really are no words to describe it. They lost everything. Worst of all, you now have a generation of young children who one day were going to school, and today, if they are even lucky to have a school, much of their time is spent wondering if things will ever get better.”
Angels Deliver Supplies
There are 75 members in the Sundowners Club and they each pay $500 which makes them co-owners of the five planes which are used in the relief flights. The Coast Guard partners with the club in order of support and resources and normally they fly their patrols with a three-person crew.
“Since we started the relief flights, we only have two pilots that way there is more room for supplies. We can carry between 600 to 700 pounds each flight and every single inch of the plane is maximized to get as much to the people as we can.”
Having spent much of his career as a school teacher in the Ottawa Valley, he requested his relief efforts assist school children. He knew a teacher in an area of the Bahamas called Treasure Key and she sounded desperate when they communicated.
“I asked her what she needed and she said everything you can bring for the children,” he said. “They need snacks, school bags, pencils, absolutely everything. The first flight I made to Treasure Key Airport, there was no infrastructure, but somehow the runway survived, but we could not use them.
“They were covered in water so we had to land in Nassau and the school teachers met us there in some trucks and they almost cried when we arrived. There is no way to describe the joy on their faces when we started unloading the supplies. Best of all, we traveled to the school and met the children and their families and we handed it off right to them.”
The retired pilots have unexpectedly achieved some fame and the local media has documented their efforts and some outlets have referred to them as the angels who come down with supplies.
“This is not about us,” he said. “We are just one little group doing the right thing to help some fellow human beings. The Bahamian government was overwhelmed and slow off the mark so there are many groups, some much larger, that are helping them out.”
Unlike some relief efforts, there is no middleman to deal with and that suits Mr. Warden just fine. He said most organizations are there to help and are genuine, but he has also heard of the odd one taking advantage and making off with generators and other items.
He said when he goes to the tarmac and sees the five planes lined up along with one or two other independent planes, the pride he feels is overwhelming.
“That lineup of planes is the lifeline for these survivors and for that is something I am proud to be part of,” he said. “It is only a two-hour flight from Ft. Myers to Treasure Key but that two hours could be the difference if the kids can try to live like kids. Their school and homes had windows blown out, roofs ripped off and there is debris everywhere. Despite everything these kids have been through, they still manage to laugh and smile when we show up.”
Although Mr. Walden can not spend more than an hour or two at the school with the kids, those brief visits make an incredible impact on all the pilots who come into contact with them.
“To see those children walk to school and sit down eager to learn and try to forget about all the chaos around them is something that really is special,” he said. “Some people who hear about us say we are heroes. It is the children and their families that keep going day after day who are the heroes. We are just doing our part to help them get through another day.”