Kevin Crowe spent much of 2010 grieving. That April, his best friend passed away from brain cancer. At 37, Ryan Westerman was one of the kindest men Crowe had ever known. “Ryan still had buddies from kindergarten,” he says. “And he was a hugger. People to this day comment on the great hugs they got from him.” That joyfulness shaped his final days. Before he died, Westerman threw a party for family and friends, as if to say life is a gift they should enjoy. Crowe wanted to honour that message, but how?
He began by volunteering at Calgary’s Southwood Hospice in 2011. Once a week, Crowe would leave his job as an executive for an IT company and distribute snacks at the 24-bed facility. Often he’d offer patients, all in their last days or weeks of life, company and conversation. Chatter always drifted back to absent family members-parent, grandparent, sibling, child-who couldn’t afford plane fare to come say goodbye. Crowe thought of how wrenching it would be to find himself apart from his own wife and 12-year-old son if he were preparing to slip from the world. Bringing together the dying and the living, he realized, would be the perfect tribute to Westerman.
When Crowe later read on Kula-an online hub for hundreds of charities worldwide-that at any given time an estimated 10 trillion frequent-flyer points go unredeemed, he knew he had the answer. In February 2013, he founded Give a Mile, a not-for-profit that allows Canadians, through its website, to give away Aeroplan Miles and other loyalty points to patients recommended by palliative-care and hospice centres across the country. While there are charities that accept frequent-flyer donations (Hope Air uses them to award free flights to Canadians who need medical treatment unavailable in their area), no other service taps reward programs to help people visit critically sick loved ones.
As of June, Crowe and his team of 20 volunteers had booked 25 flights-among them, a 30-year-old Calgary mother of five with brain cancer who was reunited with her childhood friend from Nova Scotia. By the end of 2014, Crowe expects to arrange another 33 flights. His goal? To hand out a total of one billion travel miles-roughly 40,000 tickets.
Pedro Miranda was one of the patients who received a call after Calgary’s Tom Baker Cancer Centre shared his story with Crowe. Miranda had immigrated to Canada in 2008 and soon found work as a landscaper, but his wife, Maribel, and daughter, Samantha, still lived back in Nicaragua. In October 2013, the 51-year-old was diagnosed with Stage IV stomach and colon cancer. With no chance of survival, he thought of his family: what would happen to them? Suddenly, here was Crowe, offering to fly them over and even recruiting lawyers to help secure visas pro bono. Miranda’s family arrived on April 10 and stayed for 20 days. His daughter, who had always dreamt of seeing snow, ran down the white sidewalks. “Seeing her,” says Miranda, “gave me strength for my chemo.”
Donna Wilson, a palliative-care researcher and a professor of nursing at the University of Alberta, says Give a Mile fills a gap in end-of-life care. “The most pressing need a terminally ill person has,” she says, “is emotional: regrets over arguments, over things they did or didn’t do.” Facing the end, what a patient may want more than anything is closure-or, as with Miranda, reassurance that those being left behind will be okay.
One of Crowe’s most recent flights was for Aubri, a seven-year-old leukemia patient. Her family had little support in Calgary, so Crowe brought in Aubri’s grandparents from Ontario. When Crowe called to tell Aubri’s mom, he could hear the moment in her voice when his words sank in. “This is about connecting people,” Crowe says, “and giving them a final chance to say what needs to be said.”