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'My Unsung Hero': The woman who helped a kid deserted in an airport during a layover


Time now for My Unsung Hero, our new series from the team at Hidden Brain. My Unsung Hero tells the stories of people whose kindness left a lasting impression. In 1979, Wendy McDowell was 8 years old, and she needed to fly from Bismarck, N.D., to Burlington, Vt. No one in her family could go with her, so her parents decided that she would be chaperoned by a 19-year-old family friend. After flying together for a few hours, Wendy and her chaperone landed in Chicago for a layover and discovered that their connecting flight was canceled. Wendy says that is when the family friend made a choice that Wendy still struggles to understand. She booked herself on another flight and headed home, leaving Wendy to fend for herself.

WENDY MCDOWELL: She left me in the Chicago O'Hare Airport as an 8-year-old with no flight, no plan, no adult in charge of me - just literally walked away. I remember just feeling so desperate, just that - you know that feeling that we've all had, that feeling of being a kid and looking around and every single face is a stranger's face and just how terrifying that is. So it was like that, but there was no one coming for me.

I remember this woman walking over to me, and she was wearing white. I remember she was wearing white, and she came and she sat next to me. And I just remember being - immediately feeling a sense of safety because someone was with me. And she just really, really gently spoke to me and asked me where I was going and where was my mother? And she just very calmly asked my permission to kind of take charge. And she said, if you trust me, I will take care of you. I have to fly to Pittsburgh, but I will fly to Burlington with you because you can't do this alone. And I'll need you to give your mother's phone number to me so that we can call her. And this woman convinced my mother that I would be safe with her. And I told my mother that I felt safe. And she indeed - she took care of me.

The older I've gotten, the more I've been thinking about her, just knowing that she did all of that for a stranger. Something that maybe didn't feel huge to her just completely redirected my life because I don't think I have ever been treated as badly as I was by the person who left me. And it's a story that I have told my son because I want him to know that people can choose to be beautiful and helpful and provide security and that people like this are out there. So I just appreciate it more than words can really express.


ESTRIN: Wendy McDowell lives in Albany, N.Y. You can find more stories from My Unsung Hero wherever you get your podcasts. To share the story of your unsung hero, record a voice memo on your phone and email it to

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