Know a hero? Send suggestions to email@example.com. For more inspiring stories, read the latest issue of PEOPLE magazine
Joe DeMarco is spreading his wings to help save lives.
After accompanying his best friend on a life-altering flight to save a 2-year-old boy with cancer 10 years ago, DeMarco quit his job as a New York mason contractor to become a hero pilot – helping hundreds of people along the way.
DeMarco, 55, and his wife Diane DeMarco, 53, founded their non-profit medical/humanitarian air transportation service Wings Flights of Hope in their hometown of Buffalo, New York, in 2009.
Wings is made up of 12 volunteer pilots who dedicate their time to helping “anyone at any time.” The organization flies people in need free of charge all over the northeastern part of the U.S. to doctors appointments, chemo sessions and even for emergency transplant operations.
Since its inception six years ago, Wings has made 1,354 flights – ensuring hundreds of people get the medical treatments they need.
DeMarco, who flies full time, says many people suffering from illnesses and diseases are unable to travel commercially because of a multitude of risks they face, so Wings safely transports patients from airports near their hometowns to airports near their hospitals or doctors.
The organization also offers vital last-minute air-transit for transplant patients who often face a short window of opportunity to receive organ donations.
“It’s so rewarding to be able to meet people and see the kind of courage they face in difficult situations,” DeMarco tells PEOPLE. “To be a part of someone’s fight to survive is so special. I wouldn’t trade it for the world.”
“I love helping people and I love flying. I’m so lucky I get to combine my two passions,” he says. “I get paid in the best way, with smiles and thank-you’s.”
Diane – who finds patients, plans the trips and fundraises money through Facebook promotions for the gas and maintenance of the planes – organized over 340 flights over the past year.
Ready, Set, Takeoff!
DeMarco bought his first plane, a four-seater with a built-in parachute, in 2004, and began volunteering to transport patients after his close friend, Kevin D’Angelo, introduced him to the concept.
DeMarco accompanied pal D’Angelo, a dentist in Orchard Park, New York, on a mission to pick up a 2-year-old boy with cancer from New Jersey’s Teterboro Airport, and fly him to Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City to receive an emergency operation.
“His mother was crying and hugging and thanking us,” says DeMarco. “It hit me right then. We had made such a difference for this family. We gave this little boy a second chance at life. I couldn’t believe it. I knew this was my calling.”
D’Angelo says he knew from that first flight that his friend was a “changed person.”
“I took him under my wing,” D’Angelo, 60, tells PEOPLE. “After we went on that passion flight, he fell in love. He became so emotional seeing how we helped those people and so energized. It completely changed his life.”
Over the next five years, DeMarco would get his qualification to do medical flights and transport over 300 people to appointments and for transplant operations.
Come Fly With Me
Family members of patients reach out to Diane every day on the Wings Facebook page or website requesting transportation. After all necessary documentation is completed, she reaches out to pilots and airports to book the flights.
“We have over 50,000 likes on Facebook and are still able to complete 98 percent of our requested flights,” she tells PEOPLE. “It’s a lot of work, but it’s all so worth it. If we can take the burden off of someone, if we can ease their pain, then we are winning.”
While some patients only need to be transported by Wings once or twice, many are, unfortunately, “frequent fliers,” due to worsening conditions, continued treatments or complications from surgeries.
“Some of the people I fly have flown with me so much and have become like family to me,” says DeMarco. “I am so inspired by them. It puts a new perspective on everyday living and makes me want to be a better person. I’ve realized it can be so easy to take the little things for granted.”
Luke In The Sky
Luke Maeding, 14, has gone on 10 flights with DeMarco since connecting on Facebook in 2010. The eighth-grader received a double lung transplant five years ago and now suffers from a chronic illness called intestinal pseudo-obstruction.
“Luke would not be alive without Joe,” Luke’s mother, Heather Maeding, 40, tells PEOPLE. “Joe and Diane gave their whole lives to ensuring people like my son stay alive. They have devoted their lives to something that they make no money doing. It’s incredible.”
Maeding says her son carries Joe’s business card in his backpack (that contains his IV fluids) because it “makes him feel safe.”
“Luke suffers from anxiety and stress of what will happen to him in the future,” she says. “Knowing Joe can be there for him whenever he needs gives him comfort and a sense of peace. It takes away a little bit of that pain.”
“Joe saved my life,” Luke tells PEOPLE. “He’s fun to fly with and he’s a good pilot. He’s my hero. He’s my pilot.”
Joe and Diane hope to expand Wings’ geographical reach by recruiting more pilots across the country.
“We want to educate pilots about this organization,” says DeMarco. “Why not take something you love to do and make a difference? There is a need for getting people places. And that’s not going to go away any time soon.”