Legacy, dreams, vision, change, innovation, and challenge are all words that are a part of the journey EAA Chapter 1240 has been on for more than a decade. It was not long ago that we were calling home to two donated t-hangars at the Sebring airport. In those hangars we conducted our pancake breakfasts (only during the winter snowbird season) and worked on donated aircraft for our emphasis on youth aviation programs. It was a big deal if we had 40 people show up for a pancake breakfast. Now with our monthly breakfasts in our own facility, we average well over a 100 people each month. It is now a monthly community social event where we also serve pancakes.

An aviation class at Lake Placid High School began in 1999 and led to a cooperative agreement between the school board, Sebring airport, the local workforce board and EAA Chapter 1240 to promote youth aviation education. That agreement was recognized as an innovative effort by the Ray Foundation and led to their support to help a dream come true. That dream was to have a facility the EAA Chapter 1240 could call home and provide a place where youth programs could be held and an area to work on aircraft.

There were many of the founding and early members of Chapter 1240 that sat around the terminal meeting room table wondering what it would take, how might it happen, how do we make the dream come true? Ron Owen, Phil Lockwood, Bob Wood, Joe Barnhart, Rich McCann, George Eschenbach, Bill Leftwich and I were part of the group who worked on laying the foundation of the vision. I remember distinctly Ron Owen stating our purpose was to support more youth activities in the future. That was music to my ears as I was teaching the aviation program at LPHS. We flew many Young Eagles and that effort was growing. We could and needed to do more.

The Ray Foundation came to us through a connection with Phil Lockwood and provided resources to help us build the EAA Chapter 1240 Aviation Development Center (ADC) with matching community support. The Sebring airport was a major contributor to the effort. We were on our way to seeing our dream come true. We initiated an annual fund-raising dinner to support the effort. The first was held in Lockwood Aviation’s hangar with featured speaker three-time National Aerobatic Champion Patty Wagstaff. It was a great start.

The next year in 2015, we held our first dinner in the ADC with Tuskegee Red Tail P-51 pilot Col. Leo Gray. In our annual we have flown high learning about the SR-71 with Col. Richard Graham, learned about the origins of float planes with J.J. Fry, traveled in orbit to the Hubble Telescope with NASA Astronaut Story Musgrave, and last year explored Options and Opportunities for our youth with AOPA’s Cindy Hasselbring, Ray Foundation’s CEO Chuck Ahearn, with the perspective of astronaut Story Musgrave. This year we come full circle with the lady who helped get it all started, Patty Wagstaff, as we explore her African adventures with the Kenya Wildlife Service.

This year we also celebrate the expansion of our facility and chapter programs serving our community. Again, the Ray Foundation stepped up and matched the community’s commitment to expand our efforts. It is much more than adding another 40’ of hangar space. In that 40’ x 70’ extension, magic continues to happen. Our county high school students now come here during the school day and explore their own options and opportunities in aviation, aerospace and technology. We have been recognized nationally as a “Best Practice” in how to develop a community youth aviation education program.

Our success required the efforts of many coming together in support of a vision and purpose that is seen as an investment in our future. To create the desired future, we must do things today. We cannot rest on our success, but we need to continue to develop the talent and resources to maintain and grow our programs. All the people who attend our dinners, make contributions of their time, talents, and funds throughout the year, are investors in our future. Our youth are 25% of our population and 100% of our future.

There is the desire to expand our high school aviation-aerospace program next year to serve even more secondary students. We have a program that is successful and produces measurable, positive results. We have a new EAA Chapter 1240 leadership team that will expand our community involvement. To make it all happen, we need your help. We challenge you to invest your time, talent and resources to help build the future we desire for our youth and the community where they will be the future leaders. The journey has been eventful and exciting, and it is not over. There are more things to accomplish and bigger dreams to come true. We invite you to come join us on the journey.

John Rousch is the director of the Highlands Aviation and Aerospace Academy, a community partnership between the School Board of Highlands County, the Sebring Regional Airport, EAA Chapter 1240 and Career Source Heartland, and other community groups supporting youth. He can be reached at johnrousch73@gmail.com or call or text 863-273-0522.