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How Las Vegas-based Miracle Flights helps hundreds each month

Vegas Voices is a weekly series highlighting notable Las Vegans.

Charity may begin at home, but that doesn’t mean it can’t spread its wings.

Miracle Flights, which provides free air travel to needy patients seeking treatment for rare medical conditions, touts itself as Las Vegas’ only homegrown national charity.

“We probably don’t see 95 percent of the people we help,” Miracle Flights CEO Mark E. Brown says, “because in any given month, we’ll fly people in and out of 40 to 45 states.”

In 1985, Las Vegan Ann McGee combined her interests in private aviation and helping children to found the nonprofit that now provides 600 to 700 medically necessary flights each month.

“We have one young man, he’s one of 16 children in the world with this rare form of dwarfism,” Brown says. “The only doctor in the country is in Delaware. … We find that it’s very common that there may only be one or two doctors that treat a particular disease.”

In 1961, when he was 6 months old, Brown’s family moved to Las Vegas from Rogers, Arkansas, after his father, Robert, was named editor of the Review-Journal. Brown, a graduate of the University of Nevada, Reno, joined Miracle Flights in 2015 after having served as president of R&R Partners and vice president of The Howard Hughes Corporation and Station Casinos.

When Brown took over, the organization was mired in negative headlines, including reports of McGee’s retirement package that some found excessive and a $2.2 million loan the charity made that wasn’t repaid and ended up in court. “Over the last 3½ years, we’ve done record numbers of flights, fulfilling our mission, and that’s because, amongst other things, of the way the community rallied around this organization to help us through that difficult time,” Brown says. “It wasn’t as if the organization was in jeopardy at any point. We had a couple of bad members that had larceny in their hearts that were on our board. They’re long gone, and they’re in a position where they’re going to have to repay what was taken from us.”

Miracle Flights is hosting its first Carnival in the Clouds, a throwback to the air show fundraisers McGee once organized, from noon to 4 p.m. Saturday at Craig Ranch Regional Park, 628 W. Craig Road. To learn more about the organization or the free event, see miracleflights.org.

“Once you fly with us, you’re with us really forever. Very few families, or very few children, fly only once,” Brown says. “And, by the way, we fly the child and the parents, or the caregiver, so the majority fly multiple times. And many fly multiple times in one month. So we’ll have a huge investment in most of these kids, in the tens of thousands of dollars, as time goes by.”

Review-Journal: So how did Miracle Flights begin?

Mark E. Brown: The first flights that Ann ever organized were (to fly) blood into rural Nevada. … Over the years, she created this national network of private pilots who would fly sick children to distant medical care.

How did it morph into what it is today?

We would have a pilot on standby and there (would be) a change. The child would have to stay longer. That pilot would usually have to blow out of there, and we’d have to scramble to find somebody else. It either resulted in a delay in getting the child home, or it could be a smaller plane which required multiple fuel stops, which was not good for the child. That was the main reason, and so we transitioned to all commercial airlines. Now if there’s a change, we just change the reservation.

What does it take to receive help from Miracle Flights?

It’s really the income requirement and the need. Where a local doctor says, “Hey, there’s an opportunity for you to get better.” And confirmation that the doctor on the other end will accept them. And that’s it. If we are in a position financially to help, which we are, we’ll fly them.

You’ve been involved in nonprofit work, but what made you want to make the leap to doing it full time?

What intrigued me about Miracle Flights is they’ve been here for 33 years, but they’re a national charity. And while we work very hard and we have a focus on helping anybody who needs help in Las Vegas, we also have the opportunity to build and grow a national brand and try to expand nationally.

What can visitors expect from Carnival in the Clouds?

It’s a drone festival and family carnival. … People can come and they’ll be able to fly drones — not theirs, but ours — they’ll be able to try drones if they’ve never flown a drone before. And they’re going to be able to see some exhibitions of some amazing drones.

Is the ultimate goal of that to raise money or awareness?

We will raise some money, but it gives us an opportunity to reach out to the Las Vegas community and have them learn more about Miracle Flights.

Last, a very important question: As basically a native Las Vegan, but also a graduate of that other state school, do you say UNR or Nevada?

I’m all UNLV now, so it’s UNR.

Contact Christopher Lawrence at clawrence @reviewjournal.com or 702-380-4567. Follow @life_onthecouch on Twitter.

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