John Curran | Jul 29, 2020

In some ways little Alex McKeown, 8, is like many other young boys his age, especially his almost obsessive love of flying and being around aircraft of any type.

What sets him apart is his irrepressible smile, the fact he’s a bit of online sensation, and fundraising dynamo, oh he’s been fighting cancer for almost two years now. When COVID-19 hit, his oncology team said to get him out of Toronto immediately, so the family has been at their Bobs Lake cottage since March 18. The McKeowns have been cottaging in the area for generations and Alex’s story is quite well known among neighbours and friends around the lake. When Dad Mike McKeown turned to the Bobs Lake Ontario Facebook group and made the following request, the response was almost overwhelming.

“Just wondering if anyone on the lake with a floatplane or anyone who might know someone who could help. My Son Alex as many of you know has cancer and has been deemed palliative. He loves flying but has never been up over the lake he loves so much. I’m just wondering if there is someone with a plane on the lake that would be willing to take him for a quick tour?” he wrote.

The post was quickly shared across several area Facebook groups and hundreds of replies started pouring in.

“It was incredible,” said Mike McKeown. “I didn’t know what to expect but the community’s response was just tremendous.”

Several firm offers immediately poured in from residents and cottagers anxious to assist. Some were more immediate than others. One came from an American pilot who remains willing to come to Canada as soon as the quarantine is lifted. In the end, off duty Air Canada Cargo pilot Matt Rodmell wanted to do the flight, but his plane is currently on wheels and so he couldn’t. Instead he alerted his friend Paul Snelgrove, a resident of nearby Big Clear Lake and private pilot with a fully restored yellow 1958 Beaver floatplane. Snelgrove came the very next day to take Alex for his tour.

“Because I’ve got a Beaver it’s a little bigger than a lot of other private floatplanes,” said Snelgrove. “I was able to take his Mom and Dad as well as Alex and his sister for a tour of Bobs Lake including going over their place so they could see it from the air.”

Alex lit up – though it did take him a little time to believe the flight was really happening. When the plane landed and pulled up to the McKeown’s dock, he had no idea it was coming; he suddenly got very shy.

“He was just taking it all in with big eyes, he was awestruck,” McKeown explained. “After we went up and had landed, the first thing he said was, ‘I want to go again.’”

Alex sat up front in the co-pilot’s seat and because the plane is equipped with dual controls, he was able to get the sensation of flying the plane. It wasn’t the first time, Alex has flown in a Beaver mind you.

“His very first flight we chartered a Beaver floatplane from Orillia and we took him to a restaurant on Georgian Bay that you can only get to by water or air. He’s also gone on a Porter flight, he did a life flight with Ornge and we did a family trip to Cuba right before COVID-19 hit,” said McKeown. “The way the community came together to surround our little guy with goodness, it was extremely moving.”

For Snelgrove, the experience was similarly uplifting.

“I have a nine-year-old myself so when I met Alex I was just speechless, it was tough not to breakdown,” he recalled. “I’ve been blessed and I know it – I can’t imagine what they’re feeling as a family. He is a wonderful kid and it looks like cottage life is agreeing with him. We hope for a miracle.”

If you would like to learn more about the harrowing journey of Alex’s young life and his battle against acute myeloid leukemia, his father has created the Alis Army facebook group, which details everything he’s been through and some of the adventures he’s had along the way.

He’s also a part of the Great Cycle Challenge, which started in 2016 and after four years has grown to become one of the biggest cycling events across Canada. People of all ages, abilities and from every province across the country set themselves a personal riding goal and challenge themselves to pedal throughout August to raise money to help fight kids’ cancer. The Alex’s Army Team is currently sitting in first with more than $262,000 raised. Second place is a distant $20,000.

“He just has this zest for life despite all he’s gone through since being diagnosed on Christmas Eve 2018, the bone marrow surgery, the chemotherapy, the experimental drugs, to ultimately being told there’s nothing doctors can do,” said McKeown. “He’s so inspirational, people are drawn to him.”

This entire story has an additional silver lining. Remember there were several offers to take Alex for the flight? Another private pilot who has his plane on wheels based in Carp, Ont., is going to fly the McKeown family all the way from there to Toronto and back on the August long weekend.

Little Alex’s cheeks will no doubt be aching after that trip, as he’ll be smiling from ear to ear as he lives his dream again with his family, riding high on another angel’s wings.

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