Dragging my carry-on baggage onto the plane heading for Nebraska, I was a little disconcerted. First, I was not fully recovered from the jet lag after a trip to the beaches of Dakar, Senegal and then the return to a snow bound city. Second, the mysterious disappearance of a Malaysian plane had thoroughly shaken my usual confidence about flying. And now, I joined my two colleagues to struggle to reach our assigned seats in the rear of the aircraft. I wondered exactly when our seats had been confirmed for this journey to the middle of America, where we would address the status of traumatized African American adolescents in Omaha.
Sitting by the window, my co-worker leaned near me and inquired, “Is that T—? ” Leaning further into the aisle, I peered straight down into the cockpit and caught a glimpse of a dark, handsome, meticulously attired, tall airline steward. I was taken aback. The last time I had seen this young man, he had graduated from NCCF’s foster care program, while refusing to be adopted or to return home with his siblings. I often asked for justification for the numerous purchase orders his social worker requested from the agency to pay to accompany him on college exploratory trips all over the country, colleges he had no interest in attending. Six years ago, he stopped by the office after he obtained his first job, showing us his first uniform. Now all three of us watched intently as this 27-year-old young man demonstrated how to use the oxygen mask and exit during an emergency landing. His professionalism oozed over the speaker system as he melodically reminded the passengers to buckle their seat belts. It really was “T.”
What are the odds that we would find each other again, and in this way? Nearly giddy with the pleasure of seeing this formerly maltreated young boy now mature and so comfortable with himself, I called out his first name. All the way down the plane’s aisle. Everyone turned back to see the source of the voice. As he looked up, and recognized two of us, a broad smile covered his beautiful face and he quickly strolled down to greet us. I gripped his hand, so tightly, so very proud. He continued to smile.
During the next few hours, he stood over us at our seats and shared how he moved from working at the gate to flying as a steward. He talked about all of the places in the world he had seen and those he planned to visit in the future. Spain. Brazil. Tokyo. Beijing. His eyes revealed the depth of his passion and the pleasure he receives in traveling. The friends he has made. His relationships with his brothers and sister. His desire to contact his foster parent. His excitement seeing us, seeing him. He brought us a large bag of nuts and almonds and offered us drinks (I now was glad we were in the rear seats.) Special treatment. Caring for us. We exchanged contact information and assured him that we would invite him to share in NCCF’s centennial celebration later this year. As we departed from the plane, he proudly introduced us to the pilot. Family. We hugged him and shook and held his hand again.
It was a beautiful reunion. And it reminded us of the sheer importance of preserving childhood, no matter the challenges, no matter the obstacles. We were unexpectedly reminded. Children will grow into adults, and when we love them and care for them, they grow into healthy, productive ones.