After delighting kids on Make-A-Wish flights for years, Alaska pilots never imagined one would be for them 

Photos by Ingrid Barrentine

Captain Ryan McNelis and First Officer Bethany McNelis have each piloted Make-A-Wish flights over their careers with Alaska Airlines. Welcoming kids into the fight deck and showing them the bells and whistles brings joy to families dealing with a child’s critical illness. 

They never in a million years imagined they’d be on a Make-A-Wish flight for their own family.  

Yet, this week they were—seated not in the flight deck, but in row 21 with their daughter Maeve and her brother Rowan, thanks to Make-A-Wish of Alaska & Washington.  The smiles on their faces and excitement for their trip to Disney World in Orlando, Florida concealed what they had endured the last two years—when their lives were tipped upside down by their baby girl’s illness.  

Trusting her “mom sense” 

The McNelises first noticed that something was different with Maeve when she was learning to walk.  “She’d take a step or two and would gingerly sit down, as if in pain,” Bethany said.  

Several trips to the doctor diagnosed her with anemia, and then an ear infection. But Bethany’s ‘mom sense’ said it was something more. Ryan and Bethany persisted, and a blood test and very observant nurse practitioner finally led them to Seattle Children’s Hospital.  

There they were given the news no parent ever wants to hear. Maeve had neuroblastoma, a rare form of childhood cancer. 

Overnight, the hospital became Maeve’s new home as she braved chemotherapy, surgery, two stem cell transplants, radiation and immunotherapy. Ryan and Bethany wore down their tire treads making the trip between Gig Harbor and Seattle over the next two years. 

Taking care of our own 

As the McNelises were caring for Maeve, their Alaska Airlines family cared for them. “The company took care of us,” Bethany said.  She was able to take leave and stay with Maeve, while Ryan got a break in his schedule.  

“We are just so appreciative of the support. It eased our stress level,” she said. 

In a stroke of serendipity, one of Maeve’s nurses at Children’s happened to be the daughter of Dave Mets, Alaska VP of flight operations.  “She and Maeve had a special bond, it was so amazing,” Bethany said, noting that Maeve often talks of her nurses and plays “hospital”-caring for her stuffed animals–attaching strings as make-shift IVs for their ‘icky’ medicine. 

But on Tuesday at the airport, there wasn’t a needle or nurse to be seen.  

As the McNelis family walked to their gate, there was a party waiting—a country farm backdrop with whimsical cows and horses, pink cowboy hats and gifts for Maeve and her brother—thanks to the wish fairies of Make-A-Wish.  

But perhaps the biggest surprise came when the boarding door opened, and Maeve met the pilot—her Uncle Joey!  First Officer Joey McNelis. Ryan’s brother and a fellow pilot at Alaska, was flying their plane. 

First Officer Joey McNelis “Uncle Joey” greets Maeve.

All in the family 

Aviation runs in the McNelis family. In addition to Joey, Ryan and Bethany working for Alaska Airlines, their father Jim is a retired captain, mom Joleta is a retired flight attendant and Uncle Scott Willott is a maintenance controller.  

So, the natural question is—does Maeve want to be a pilot? “Nope,” she said as she hugged her new stuffed horse that she had already named ‘Spirit.’  “I want to be a cowgirl.” 

Behind the scenes, making sure everything was in order, was Alaska’s own Teresa Jean-Baptiste, lead customer service agent.  Jean-Baptise has been greeting Make-A-Wish families at Sea-Tac with her friendly smile and easy manner for over two decades. In fact, she trained her coworkers on the art of breezing the families through check-in, security and helping them board. 

Jean-Baptise, a mom of three, held back tears as the family boarded—“This is just the best part of my job,” she said.  

Medicine for the spirit, and not the icky kind 

Maeve’s is the 8,000th wish granted by Make-A-Wish Alaska & Washington. Alaska Airlines has been a proud Make-A-Wish partner since 1986, when we flew our first wish trip–a little girl and her family headed to Disneyland.   

Wishes fill a vital need for children facing critical illnesses,” said Make-A-Wish’s Kathryn Mueller.“They give hope and joy to families after long hospital stays and grueling treatment regimens. Wishes allow children to believe anything is possible. We can’t thank Alaska Airlines enough for helping bring dreams to life.” 

You can help support Make-A-Wish Alaska & Washington using Alaska Airlines miles. These miles are used to send wish children and their families, like Maeve, to the destinations of their dreams. Donate miles now at And read more at Make-A-Wish® Alaska & Washington


  1. This is exactly the reason I only fly Alaska Airlines- THE PEOPLE! I am so happy to read about this family’s journey and the brilliant wish of a young cowgirl. Thanks for sharing something that makes others feel good for a change!

  2. Awesome family Alaska Airlines

  3. Wonderful act of caring! My granddaughter had her Make- A- Wish. I know how
    much the whole program means to the child, parents and family. Thanks to all of you. You are literally earning your Heavenly Wings!

  4. Thank you for giving this special gift to the family of Maeve and Rowan
    My best friend Linda Barnhart
    Bethany’s mother and her husband Bill gave up 2 years of their life in Rochester to support their life between childrens and Gig Harbor
    In Washington and the support of so many people with prayers have brought Maeve and Rowan to this beautiful gift
    Thank you so much and we will continue to keep make a wish and the people of Alaska airlines in our prayers
    Thank you very much for your kindness and generosity
    Nancee and Jim Wallin

  5. Such a heartwarming story! I saw this on TikTok as well and it made me tear up! So proud to work for such an amazing company!!

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