Matt Dimmer knows he was lucky.
The Chicago-based creative director, 42, was able to visit his ailing father repeatedly after a grim diagnosis of pancreatic cancer in 2011. Dimmer would fly from his then-home in Los Angeles back to Michigan each weekend so the family could spend its last days together.
But he knew many others likely could not afford such travel, even with time so precious. And he shared with Pete Dimmer on his deathbed his broad idea to create a charity honoring his father’s giving spirit — a man who Dimmer said always went out of his way to help others.
Dimmer wondered: “How many people are in my situation? More importantly, how many people are in this situation but aren’t here, because they are unable to finance the trip? When my dad was dying, he told me I grew up to be the man that he had hoped … I was able to have those conversations, and I just couldn’t imagine other people being denied that.”
“The Extra Mile” was born in 2012 with a simple mission: allowing frequent flyers to donate their air travel award miles to connect family members with loved ones dying from cancer.
Three years since its inception, “The Extra Mile” receives online requests for help from all over the world.
Dimmer, who now lives in Chicago and is married with twin boys, said he tears up reading email pleas from people who need his charity’s help. He hopes to continue to do more as his efforts become better known.
“There are heartbreaking stories of people who cannot financially afford to see their dying loved ones. Saying goodbye is fundamental to our existence, and our team is hellbent on making that possible for others, one mile at a time,” Dimmer said.
It’s a small gesture, sharing one’s flight miles, but life-changing in its ability to help reunite people and give them peace. The charity’s first recipient was a Seattle, Washington, man, J.J., who flew to Macon, Georgia, to visit his cancer-stricken father for the last time.
J.J., a street performer who is gay, was estranged for 23 years from his family, but had begun to repair that fracture in the last few years before his dad received a gall bladder cancer diagnosis.
“I was frantically trying to find a way to him, but I couldn’t possibly afford a plane ticket. I didn’t want my dad to die alone. I wanted to tell him I love him,” J.J. told Dimmer, who came along as his charity’s first trip was documented on video. “I’m not sure what I’d have done without ‘The Extra Mile.'”
Dimmer was also touched to share in the deeply emotional experience.
“I’m grateful we were able to reunite them in time,” he said.
Many have been generous in helping the charity. One woman reached out privately and gave enough miles to allow Andreas Powers to return from Ireland, where he’d moved with his wife, to return to visit his mother in Boston, Massachusetts. She was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and it had rapidly spread to her lungs and liver. Her time was short when Powers penned a touching letter for help to “The Extra Mile.”
He wrote: “I want to be with her more than anything in the world and I don’t know what to do. I recently lost my job and my wife is a stay-at-home mom. We are struggling financially and there is no way I can think of to get the money to visit her. My mother is such a beautifully positive woman, she is funny and the most generous person even though she doesn’t have much. She is positive on the phone but I can hear the fear and worry in her voice when I speak to her. She wants to see me more than anything, and I want to be there for her more than anything else in the world.”
The two were reunited and Dimmer was proud that he could make the connection. He credits some of his entrepreneurial spirit in founding his nonprofit to his mother, who always encouraged ideas as he was growing up.
As awareness spreads about “The Extra Mile,” he hopes to expand his ability to fund more trips — noting the massive need — and is looking for future partners, including airlines, who might connect with his vision and see an opportunity to help.
Dimmer says on his website, TheExtraMile.org: “Looking back on it now, though it is all still so painful to recall, I feel so blessed that I was there. I was there right after he was diagnosed. I was there when he got sicker. I was there for his last cognizant moments. I was there for his last moments of life. And I was there when he died.
“It means everything, now,” he said, “to be able to reunite other people in time to say those last goodbyes.”
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