When Jerome Stanislaus was growing up as part of a middle class, African-American family in Brooklyn, New York, in the 1990s, he had a dream to be a pilot and fly high across the sky.
"But I never believed that I would ever actually become a pilot," he remembered. "I did not really believe it was possible — even though I had so much support from my family. I told myself I couldn't do it because I had never seen a Black pilot — not one time. I didn't think that Black kids actually grew up to be pilots. I thought it was just rich white kids."
Now Stanislaus is doing something about that. He donates his free time as a general aviation pilot to a nonprofit organization called Fly For The Culture, which helps racially diverse children, teens and young adults explore their interest in flying.
Fly For The Culture is "not completely about minorities," Stanislaus told CNN. "I just happen to live in Brooklyn, New York — in a minority community — and those are the types of people who reach out to me. The purpose of Fly For The Culture is to promote diverse inclusion to create an aviation culture of people from all different walks of life."
In fact, the racial makeup of America's professional pilots and flight engineers is very white — 92% — and 91% male, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Last year's figures show less than 3% of US commercial pilots are African Americans. Fewer than 7% are Hispanic or Latino and a little more than 4% are Asian.
Five-year-old Amelia Cornibert recently experienced a flight on a small single-engine airplane with Stanislaus at the controls. "She was smiling the whole time," her father Nisan Cornibert said. "She's still very young of course, but it would be wonderful if she wanted to be a pilot someday."
Her dad says Amelia wants to go back up for another flight. And it kind of makes sense. She was named after a woman pilot you may have heard about — the legendary Amelia Earhart.
A Sunday church service led to an epiphany
Stanislaus's road to the cockpit has been a long one. After high school the Marine Corps taught him to become an aircraft mechanic — but he needed a degree to get into military flight school.
After leaving the Marines, Stanislaus earned a degree in airport management. He became an elementary school teacher and put his flying dreams on hold for two years, until a Sunday church service gave him an epiphany.
"Out of nowhere, my heart just got really filled with wanting to share aviation with others."
He realized he wanted to share it with people like himself — who wanted to do it, but didn't know how. And he knew he wanted to give the gift of flight to people who never thought about it for themselves — to show them that it's a career option "when it was never an option in their mind before."
"After church I drove straight to the airport and signed up for flight lessons."
They've introduced dozens of young people to flying
Five months after his first lesson at Republic Airport in East Farmingdale, Long Island, Stanislaus found himself in the left seat of a Piper Warrior II single-engine plane, performing his first solo flight.
"It was unreal," Stanislaus recalled. "I could not believe I was in an airplane by myself. I couldn't even control the excitement in my body. I really felt like the corners of my mouth were touching my earlobes."
Soon after, Stanislaus got involved with Fly For The Culture. Since he started the flights last year, he estimates he has introduced 20 to 30 young people to the joy of flying. Each ride costs the nonprofit about $150 an hour for the cost of renting the airplane.
The organization plans to expand
The idea for Fly For The Culture came from veteran US Navy aviator Courtland Savage, a regional airline pilot based in Raleigh, North Carolina.
He said he started the nonprofit as a way to show the African-American community that there is a path to high-paying jobs in the aviation industry. Many of them are becoming available now due to increasing airline travel and a shortage of pilots.
"I just want to use this nonprofit to get that idea out there," Savage said.
Both pilots had been paying for the flights out of their own pockets -- until news coverage prompted thousands of dollars in donations to start coming in, Savage said, helping them to their next goal: expanding from two airports to a nationwide organization.
"We didn't expect all this to happen," he said. "We were just two young guys who want to fly kids." — (CNN)