By Theresa Simendinger/Special to the Journal
As a young girl, Vicky Thalacker watched the jets take off from nearby Sandpoint Naval Station and dreamed of the day that she would fly.
At the age of 30, with encouragement of her husband, John, that dream came true. She earned a license to fly in 1977.
“I studied harder than I ever had,” Thalacker recalls. “I wanted to be a pilot so much.”
After years of flying John to his survey work, Vicky found a new calling. She envisioned a volunteer pilot group to fly cancer victims off island. Thalacker could relate as she had helped to transport a friend who battled cancer for 28 years. She considers flying cancer patients a blessing, helping others while doing something she loves.
With Thalacker at point, the San Juan Eagles started flying on their own time and on their own dime ten years ago to help cancer patients living on the island. To get the group off the ground, Thalacker called a group of pilots in the San Juan Pilots Association and formed a group of 16 volunteers, including two women, and the Eagles held their first meeting in 2002.
Thalacker still coordinates the flights, pilots and patients, and transportation to various medical centers around the region.
The dedication and efforts of the Eagles would perhaps go by mostly unnoticed had it not been for the lobbying of another local civic-mind group, the Friday Harbor chapter of Soroptimists International. This year marks the 10th anniversary of the Eagles and members of Soroptimists were determined not to let it pass by without fanfare. They brought the anniversary to the attention of a fellow member, Friday Harbor Mayor Carrie Lacher, and an idea took flight.
Since 2004, Soroptimists have also been helping ease the burden of local cancer patients by providing ferry tickets at no charge and shouldering the costs of commercial flights when weather is too bad or formidable for the Eagles to fly. The group donated $15,680 to the cause of transporting cancer patients just last year.
On Thursday, Feb. 16, Lacher issued a proclamation declaring Saturday, Feb. 18, “San Juan Eagles’ Day” at the outset of the noon meeting of the Friday Harbor Town Council, saying as part of the presentation, “I am pleased to honor the San Juan Eagles for their significant contribution to the citizens of Friday Harbor. The San Juan Eagles exemplify what our community is all about, neighbor helping neighbor.”
About a half-dozen Eagles were on hand to receive the acclaim and to share stories about their many missions. Currently, about 20 pilots serve as an Eagles’ volunteer.
The group flies roughly 200 missions a year, making transportation and the lives of the hundreds of patients they shuttle a bit easier. A flight to a treatment center can be as short as two hours, rather than an all day event, long-time Eagle pilot Dr. John Geyman noted.
From its humble beginnings 10 years ago, and despite the cost of fuel, the Eagles remain an organization of volunteers by design and at heart. Pilots donate their time and pay for the fuel and maintenance for their planes.
And now Friday Harbor joins a long list of those who owe a debt of gratitude to San Juan’s Eagles.As one beneficiary writes, “This service is really wonderful and it helps so much to know my community cares.”
— Donations to San Juan Eagles can be made by contacting Vicky Thalacker at email@example.com.Donate to the Soroptimist’s ferry ticket program by by contacting Liz Illg, at firstname.lastname@example.org