Flight school

Flight school

Ridgewood resident's program helps troubled teens learn to pilot their lives

Wings volunteers work with participants – teens in troubled lives – to give them the joy of flight and confidence in themselves. PHOTOS Courtesy Michael Edrei

Aviva, a former drug abuser and felon from northern Israel, was attending a rehab educational center – an institution of last resort – when she was brought to an airfield on her 17th birthday. Along with 11 other students at her school, she was presented with a chance to soar, literally and figuratively.

Wings (Knafaim in Hebrew) is a unique program founded in 2007 by Ridgewood resident Michael Edrei along with his Israeli childhood friends Yafa Arbel and Zvi’ka Hess. The three Israel Air Force veterans thought that flying could help kids from desperate situations develop confidence and self-esteem, and perhaps even a sense of control over their destiny.

Aviva (not her real name) was skeptical and cynical at first. But her instructor, counselor, and teachers began noticing behavioral changes after she was persuaded to take a few spins in the glider. By her next birthday, she had dissociated from her crowd. And with the help of the Wings liaison in the Israel Defense Forces, Aviva was accepted into military service despite her previous rejection due to her criminal record. This achievement is among the program’s greatest goals, because military service in Israel is key to future social and professional success.

“Anybody who flies knows its effect is profound,” said Edrei. “That’s something every pilot remembers from his or her first time in the air. I’ve been flying 45 years now and I wanted to contribute that feeling of self-confidence to really unlucky kids from miserable backgrounds. The problems of kids at these ages cannot be solved with just money. A human touch is important.”

Michael Edrei

Candidates for the program must be at least 16. Edrei said his partners work solely with rehabilitation schools and prefer selecting students with particularly difficult circumstances. “These are hard-core rejects of the community, their own homes, and families.” Unfortunately, he added, Arbel and Hess have no way to find those kids who have already dropped out of such institutions.

Edrei, who immigrated in the 1970s, made his mark in international publishing ventures including 24 popular teen magazines and Yellow Pages directories. He financed the first three years of Wings out of his own pocket. Recently, Edrei set up New Course Foundation, a U.S. 501(c)(3), not-for-profit, tax-exempt organization, at his offices in Fort Lee’s Meecorp Capital Markets to raise funds and awareness to keep the program aloft.

“I have the easiest job: writing checks,” said Edrei, who still flies his own plane. “We need volunteers in the U.S. to do fund-raising because we want to triple or quadruple the number of kids we serve. But it’s the people on the ground who are extraordinary, spending all their time and money on the project.”

Wings volunteers provide instruction in controlling a glider, and along the way model interaction with peers and strangers, cooperation, teamwork, and trust. According to its website, Newcoursefoundation.org, “Wings’ goal is not to train for new pilots; its ambition is to create productive and self-motivated human beings.”

The organization pays for space and equipment at two private gliding centers under the supervision of the Israel Civil Aviation Authority, one in the north and the other in the south. It issues guidelines to participating schools and conducts weekly and monthly progress meetings with the educators and counselors.

Edrei felt that if Wings could turn around the fortunes of just one teen every school year, he would be satisfied. In fact, the program has shown about an 80 percent success rate among the 48 teenagers it works with annually, based on evaluations by school counselors and feedback from the kids themselves.

He is particularly gratified that the IAF collaborates fully with Wings. “The sky in Israel is exclusively the Air Force’s sky, so you cannot go up without cooperation with them,” he explained. “They have even changed their program for us. One place we fly is near an Air Force base, so on Thursdays they change their landing pattern to accommodate us. At the start of each school year they give tours of the base to our students, which is very exciting for them.”

To donate or for further information visit www.newcoursefoundation.org.

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