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Tony McCombe is a man who knows how to lift spirits.

Two years after he founded Uplift in Kind, the pilot has arranged joy rides, sightseeing tours, bucket-list trips and transport for almost 200 children across Aotearoa NZ including many heart kids and their whānau.

The social enterprise offering aviation experiences to children going through a difficult time was born when Tony, piloting an air ambulance at the time, wondered how he could make a difference.

“There are always spare seats going. I just thought, how can we use them?”

Tony connects children’s charities to scenic flights, helicopters, military jet trainers, private jets and more.

Recently, Heart Kids NZ contacted Tony to ask for help reuniting a Dunedin Heart family. Mum was in Auckland, where she’d given birth so her baby could receive life-saving treatment. Three months later, her other children were missing their mum, and were yet to meet their baby brother.

Tony knew just who to call: Jetstar.

“They just said, sure, how many seats do you need?”

With the support of Uplift In Kind and Jetstar, the Otago family were reunited in Auckland after a lengthy separation.

Growing up with a disabled brother, Tony remembers his dad’s insistence on caring for others in the community. When his father insisted he go door-to-door, collecting for IHC, Tony remembers doing so reluctantly. But something stuck, and perhaps even sowed the seeds for what he does now.

“It sets you up, that sense of, you should do your bit and give back.”

But the pleasure that comes from seeing a child’s joy at becoming airborne or reuniting a family that’s been through a tough time is a huge payoff, he says.

“When you see what it does for the families … that’s what gets you.”