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Volunteer pilot pairs up with furry friends to comfort Moore, OK after tornado

When a severe tornado struck Moore, Okla. earlier this year, support flowed in from across the country in the form of donated time, money and supplies.

But a Wheaton man and an Addison nonprofit are joining forces to offer a different kind of relief – golden retrievers.

Steven Pearson is a trial lawyer by day and is involved in cases all over the country. But outside of the courtroom, he is a volunteer pilot for the Kansas City, Mo. nonprofit Angel Flight Central. The organization of volunteer pilots transports people who need long distance, often emergency, transportation but don't have the means to afford it.

In 18 years, Angel Flight Central has amassed about 400 volunteer pilots in 10 states who have flown more than 18,000 passengers more than 8 million miles, according to the nonprofit's website. Passengers range from those who need emergency medical treatment at a distant facility to children whose lives were affected by HIV or AIDS.

Pearson said that using his love of aviation for charity was an easy decision.

"Flying is a good escape and helps me get my battery recharged," he said. "Flying forces me to not think of anything else. It's good therapy, and when I can combine it with flights like this, it's therapy with a purpose."

He said that he has helped evacuate families from Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina and has brought people to and from the Mayo Clinic during his time with Angel Flight Central.

Executive Director Don Sumple said that the organization is an "under the radar organization, excuse the pun" and is constantly looking for hospitals, care providers and nonprofits for which to provide flights. Pearson said members regularly speak at churches, Rotary Clubs and doctor's offices trying to find new partners.

That's why when Pearson heard a news report about the comfort dog program run by Addison-based Lutheran Church Charities visiting Moore, Okla. after a tornado destroyed the area, he took notice.

The K-9 Comfort Dog program coordinates a pack of more than 50 golden retrievers across eight states. Dogs are sent around the country to emergency or disaster areas through partner churches. Recipients of canine comfort include Boston after the marathon bombings, New York and New Jersey after Hurricane Sandy and West Texas after the April 17 fertilizer plant explosion.

"The ministry offers the ministry of compassion," said Tim Hetzner, president of the charity. "When people pet our dogs it relaxes them. Because dogs are great listeners and show unconditional love, it allows them to start talking about what's happened."

Hetzner said that a major goal of the program is to respond quickly. He said that dogs were at Sandy Hook Elementary the day after the mass shooting that took the lives of 28 people. After Pearson learned more about the organization's work in Moore and elsewhere, he decided to pick up the phone.

"I was explaining it to the assistant executive director that 'this is what we do, have you heard of us?,'" he said. "She was literally in tears."

The next weekend, Pearson flew two golden retrievers, two handlers and a Lutheran Church Charities staffer to Moore.

"It's huge," Hetzner said of the partnership. "Having access to flights lets us hit the ground running even sooner without fatigue of travel."

Pearson said he plans on working with the nonprofit more in the future.

"One of our guide posts [at the AFC] is that we are there for people in need," he said. "These are situations that could happen to any one of us at any time, and the fact that we are able to help is a blessing. Being able to give that way has given back to me and my family tenfold."

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