July 2, 2013

Wingwoman Tracy: Giving Back and Gaining a New Perspective

Published on Huffington Post on 7/2/13

Many people travel for work, vacation to visit family and friends or all of the above. Through our travels, we explore our passions and often find new ones. With each new experience, our eyes and hearts open wider than we could ever imagine, and we bring home memories that will last forever. Last month I was lucky enough to travel with fellow JetBlue crewmembers and volunteer in some of the communities in Oklahoma affected by the recent tornadoes . During my journey, I interacted with some of the most courageous people I’ve ever met, who, despite being down on their luck, restored my faith in the human spirit.

After having children I realized how special life can be. I knew that I wanted to help those who may not have the good fortunes I do, so I made a commitment to start making a difference for others. It’s no secret that I’m a big advocate for voluntourism and have traveled plenty in the past across borders to do good. In my experience, I’ve found that volunteering events tend to fall into one of two buckets: heartwarming occasions where people teach and engage with those in need or heart wrenching experiences where volunteers aid in a community’s recovery. My travels to other countries to work with wonderful organizations include Orphanage Outreach and Sandals Foundation, where I’ve taught children about hygiene and helped build a playground, would be placed into the first bucket. But while I enjoyed these experiences greatly, it was my recent trip to Oklahoma that provided some of the most meaningful moments of my life.

There are many reasons I enjoy being a flight attendant for JetBlue, from the people I work with to the cities I travel to. Still, a part of my job that I take the most pleasure in is the opportunity to volunteer for JetBlue’s community and recovery efforts. In the past I’ve had the pleasure of raising funds for a cause that is particularly close to my heart, Angel Flight Northeast, a JetBlue-sponsored organization that flies terminally ill patients and families to get the critical care they need at no cost to them. But there has still never been an experience quite like my trip to Oklahoma with the JetBlue Ready Team. My seven days working with the American Red Cross in Oklahoma was my first experience being deployed as a part of the Ready Team and it will certainly stay with me forever.

Under the airline’s Care & Emergency Response Team, the Ready Team was launched in 2009 and brought together more than 100 JetBlue crewmembers to be trained by the American Red Cross to respond to major disasters. The size of this initiative continues to grow within the company and I’m proud to say that I’m part of a 542-person team trained and ready to deploy to a disaster zone on a moment’s notice.

I was part of a group of 20 JetBlue crewmembers who touched down in Oklahoma to aid in disaster relief. We came from all over the country from New York and Salt Lake City to Long Beach. We met and worked alongside local volunteers, as well as members of the New York Fire Department who also made the trip to the Midwest. We worked together for a full week, often for 10-12 hours straight. It was an “eat, sleep and volunteer” environment. I didn’t know one person prior to arriving, but I’m always amazed at how close strangers become when they share the same goal of helping others. We marked logistics in a warehouse in Oklahoma City before loading up trucks with supplies to bring to affected communities. We brought people everything from baby food and diapers to rakes and flashlights. I’ve always known about the fantastic work that the Red Cross does, but I was blown away by how the whole operation was so well organized on the ground.

I was most astonished by the resilience of the people in Oklahoma who, despite losing everything, still remained positive. As a flight attendant I meet hundreds of people each year flying in every direction, but I’ve never met nicer people than I met in the communities of Oklahoma. Many stood beside concrete slabs where their homes once were and instead of crying for their loss, they were smiling for their survival. Being with the victims and observing their positive attitudes was a truly special experience and I hope that I was able to give them just a sliver of the hope that they gave me.

I have been lucky enough to travel around the world to pursue a passion of mine, giving back to people in need, but my trip to Oklahoma proves that you don’t need to go far to make an impact. Do what you can to make a difference — you don’t need to go far to do something that matters. Spend your weekend getting involved in your local community; help build a playground, volunteer to read to the elderly. There is plenty of good to be done everywhere. And if you’re new to volunteering don’t take on too much at once. Reach out to local town offices or nonprofit chapters in your area to learn about ways you can help. The easiest way to get your feet wet in giving is to join charitable groups that already organize volunteering events; bring friends, family and co-workers with you and make a difference, whether in your own backyard or somewhere else in the world. Every bit of help makes a huge difference.

Tell me your favorite ways and places to give back and follow me on Twitter (@Wingwoman_Tracy) for more voluntourism tips.

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