Stramski Children's Developmental Center patients and their caregivers stand close together for a photo outside a boarding gate at the Long Beach Airport. The scene behind them includes three big, blue Southwest branded airplanes.
Stramski Children’s Developmental Center patients and their caregivers gather for a group photo with Kevin Meno, Long Beach Airport tour guide and volunteer, outside the boarding gate, as they are immersed in the sights and sounds of the airport.

On Saturday, March 2, the Stramski Children’s Developmental Center at MemorialCare Miller Children’s & Women’s Hospital Long Beach, in collaboration with the Long Beach Airport, proudly hosted the inaugural “Take Flight Without Fear” event. This groundbreaking initiative provided neurodivergent children and their families with a unique opportunity to immerse themselves in airport culture, fostering confidence, independence, and empowerment in children with various abilities.

“The ‘Take Flight Without Fear’ event is not just about making neurodivergent children and their families more comfortable with the logistics of boarding passes and security checks; it’s about opening doors of possibility,” says Long Beach Mayor Rex Richardson. “Together, we’re paving the runway for inclusivity and empowerment.”

Upon arrival at the Long Beach Airport, attendees received travel backpacks, filled with travel necessities such as snacks and sensory toys. Patients from the Stramski Children’s Developmental Center were welcomed by Juan Lopez-Rios, deputy director of the Long Beach Airport; Megan Kerr, councilwoman, District 5; Gary Feldman, M.D., medical director, Stramski Children’s Developmental Center; and Kevin Meno, Long Beach Airport’s resident volunteer, who is also on the spectrum. In attendance were several volunteers and donors supporting Miller Children’s & Women’s Hospital, the Long Beach Airport, and the community efforts of exploring the feasibility of becoming an autism-certified city. The Steel Magnolias – an all-volunteer organization that has been raising funds for the Stramski Center since 1999 – donated their time and resources to help children cope before this immersive and overwhelming experience.

The experience included a tour of the airport facilities, where patients and their caregivers received mock boarding passes and guidance on navigating security screening and procedures from TSA officers.

“This is a transformative experience for our neurodivergent patients,” says Gary Feldman, M.D., medical director, Stramski Children’s Developmental Center. “Travel opens up new horizons, fosters confidence, and breaks down barriers, and this event is a testament to our commitment at Miller Children’s & Women’s Hospital to create inclusive opportunities that empower everyone, regardless of their unique abilities, to navigate the world.”

After being screened, patients were escorted by Long Beach Airport volunteers to their designated gate, where they awaited the unique opportunity to board a flight ramp and experience the sights and sounds of an airplane up close. Participants were able to watch planes take off and land, a popular hobby among neurodivergent individuals. Afterward, they celebrated their newfound skills with a visit to baggage claim, marking the completion of their training run.

“At Long Beach Airport, we’re more than just a hub for flights; we’re a gateway to dreams,” says Cynthia Guidry, airport director, Long Beach Airport. “Let’s show these children that the sky’s the limit and empower them to navigate through life’s journeys with confidence and courage.”

The collaboration between Miller Children’s & Women’s Hospital and the Long Beach Airport underscores the shared commitment to inclusivity and support for the neurodiverse individuals within the community, further emphasizing the city’s dedication to creating welcoming spaces for all residents.