Running Downhill While Taking Flight


– the bird probably needed a lot of help to fly. It had to run downhill into a headwind, catching the air like a hang glider. Once airborne, it relied on air currents rising from the ocean to keep it gliding. – Dan Ksepka, July 8, 2014

I was nearly late for my early morning appointment because I was mesmerized by a front page Washington Post article on the Pelagornis sandersi, the world’s biggest flying bird. This newly recorded species that lived 25 million years ago had a large avian size with a wingspread of 20-24 feet. Given how heavy it was, how did it ever lift itself up into the air?

Unexpectedly, my thoughts shifted to the beautiful young faces of the 25 fourth and fifth graders

from DC’s Wards 7 and 8, who buckled their seat belts as the plane lifted and headed to Puerto Rico for a week-long excursion and total cultural submersion. Candidly, I did not grasp the full significance of this flight and its impact on these young children until I read about Pelagornis sandersi.

This was a heavy lift. One child was not allowed to go at the last moment because she was being punished by her parent. We were all sad, but for her loss. This was to be a trip of a lifetime. Many of the children left behind poor neighborhoods that they had never been out of except on an infrequent and brief school trip to the zoo, an amusement park, or a museum downtown. During this week, some let go of their anxiety about getting enough food to eat or the fear of being hit by stressed out parents. Others received a break from babysitting their younger siblings or cleaning and cooking in the house. There were secrets we all know were left, too, but none of us spoke of them….violence, betrayal, aloneness. Some children had to be pressured to call home upon landing or to call home at all. Only one child had flown before. They were all glad to land in Puerto Rico.

This was a heavy lift. The beautiful ocean surrounded the beautiful faces. And we kept gliding. The three Puerto Rican tour guides, father figures and historians, became our friends too. We hiked in the Rain Forest, awed by the foliage, and trekked through caverns, deep, dark, and ancient; we danced the Bomba in the woods with Head Start teachers on a retreat and visited the largest observatory in the world. We recalled the battles in the vast fort, and watched the legislature in the Capital. We learned how the Native Americans, Spaniards, and Africans all shaped Puerto Rico’s cultural identity. We floated through souvenir stores in Old San Juan and wore matching T-shirts embossed with the Nike Puerto Rican frog, “Just Do It, Later.” We climbed out of our school bus and ate with the locals in the neighborhood; another night, we dressed up and ate international cuisine downtown. We kept gliding…..burying each other in sand on the glorious beach or playing water games in the hotel pool or salsa dancing with the best instructors and with each other.

This was a heavy lift. But together we glided over the ocean currents and landed safely, depleted from the newness and the intrigue. And the children’s faces. Hands full of small gifts, hearts full of excitement, voices full of stories to tell and numerous facts to share. New friends. Parents who had called three times each day now happy. Staff happy now because we witnessed an amazing transformation. We saw these children running downhill to lift off. All they ever needed was the opportunity to glide, to sustain their dreams and expand their visions. Heavy as their lives might be, they have taken flight.


Dr. Sheryl Brissett Chapman

Dr. Sheryl Brissett Chapman, Ed.D., ACSW, Executive Director, provides agency administrative oversight, consultative support for all programs, and ensures overall contract and program compliance. Dr. Chapman has more than 40 years of experience supervising national, state and local human services programs, and is an expert on child and family welfare and child protection.


  1. Octavais Brown | July 17, 2014 at 2:33 pm

    Very powerful and so true to the lives of some of our inner city children.

  2. Darlene Jackson | July 29, 2014 at 9:57 pm

    They have taken flight! What an awesome experience for anyone. Thank God for the parents, teachers, supporters, sponsors, STX that support and encourage our young people. I’m excited for these young people. They will never forget this experience. Blessing to them and their futures.

  3. Darlene Jackson | July 29, 2014 at 9:59 pm

    Correction: supporters, sponsors, etc.

    Thank you Dr. Chapman for sharing.

  4. Joel Aaron | July 30, 2014 at 3:48 am

    Pivotal. I believe that based on this trip career dreams, a desire to travel, cultural awareness and endless other possibilities were birthed.


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