Suburban flight attendants care for sick children on worldwide flights
Flight attendant Bunny Doi falls asleep each night thinking about the 150 children she's escorted on flights around the world during her 19 years as an Airline Ambassadors International volunteer.
There was the badly burned Chinese girl. The baby from Burkina Faso who was on oxygen the whole flight. And the Ivory Coast girl with four legs who had surgery in March at Advocate Children's Hospital in Park Ridge.
The charity arranges for flight attendants to escort these children on flights to and from the U.S. where they're coming for specialized, charity-sponsored surgeries.
Doi, a former Mount Prospect resident, said she feels for the parents of these children -- many of whom are very poor and probably haven't been on an airplane themselves, yet they hand their child to a stranger to be taken to the other side of the world. Host families in the U.S. care for the children, often for months, until they're well enough to return to their parents.
"These mothers let their children go so they can have a better life. They're heartbroken doing so," Doi said, choking back tears. "As a mother, I can understand. They are trusting me with their child's life."
Taking your own children on an overseas flight can be a challenge. Now picture taking a child you've never met before, who doesn't speak English and might have medical issues.
Suburban flight attendants who volunteer say it's not always easy, but it's immensely rewarding. Among their many stories are children who cried for most of the flight, one who nearly died over the Atlantic Ocean and another who kept trying to breast-feed.
They also must deal with common travel woes like flight delays, visa issues and getting bumped from overbooked flights, leaving them to wait for hours with the child in an airport. Yet, they all say it's worth it.
"All we are is part of the chain that gets them here," said volunteer flight attendant Linda Feeney, of Geneva. "We just get to be a little part of the miracle."
The 175 volunteers -- mostly female American Airlines flight attendants and moms who are active with other children's charities -- use their days off, their company benefits to provide the child's ticket and their own supplies of diapers, books and snacks to escort the children.
They end up being mothers in the sky in many ways. Not only are they medical escorts, but many are trained to keep an eagle eye out for human trafficking.
Ambassadors founder and President Nancy Rivard said her flight attendants gave a tip to police that broke up a child pornography ring in Boston, saving 86 children, and also helped uncover 14 cases of human trafficking, including a dramatic story that happened in February on an Alaska Airlines flight. A flight attendant left a note in the bathroom for a teenage girl who was traveling with a suspicious-looking man, asking if she needed help. The girl wrote that she did, and the police met the man as he exited the plane.
Most of the job, though, is bringing children to and from the U.S. for medical care. While the volunteers are not allowed to administer medicine, they are made aware of the child's condition and needs.
Volunteer flight attendant Maria Horgan, of Geneva, who has a 23-year-old son, joked that she now remembers how awful it is to change diapers on an airplane. But she's never had a child misbehave, scream or cry a lot. Most of the children are exhausted by the time they get on the plane, so they'll often sleep.
Horgan recalls one 5-year-old African boy who cried "Mama! Mama!" after the airplane's doors closed and he realized his host family wasn't coming with him. "I just said, 'You're going back to see your mama in Africa!' ... and he was fine," she said. "Kids adjust so easily. It's totally amazing. I wish I could volunteer more often."
Feeney once flew nine hours from Paris to Chicago with a 7-year-old Jordanian boy whom she adored, even though he only spoke Arabic. The two played card games like "War," read books, took the magazines out of the seat pocket and pointed to photos, and ate the snacks she'd packed. She doesn't bring junk food because children from other countries might not recognize it. So she'll pack things like bananas or microwaveable rice bowls.
The program was founded by Rivard, who noticed the empty seats on some international flights.
"I thought, 'Why can't we use this space to help people? Why can't we, as flight attendants, model a new way of travel? Traveling to make a difference,'" she said.
Fired up about the idea, she presented it to airline management and other flight attendants, but no one was interested. So Rivard started doing one thing a month to help a child, even if it was collecting the soaps and shampoos from hotels and donating them. Then she volunteered to fly a child back to Cambodia. When the other flight attendants saw what she was doing, they wanted to join too. The volunteer program was born.
"You get to be a little part of something that changed this child's life," Doi said. "But the families that host these children (in the U.S.), and the doctors that treat them, they're the real stars."