SAN NICOLAS, ARGENTINA — Christmas seemed to come early at the Casa del Niño day-care center in this poor village named after St. Nick.
"Just a second, darling," says Jacki Foster in a kind Southern drawl. She is one of a dozen well-coiffed American women towering over cafeteria tables packed with anxious children. "Now, here's your package, sweetheart."
They are distributing goody bags with the efficiency and grace of well-seasoned flight attendants - which, in fact, these women are. They are here as representatives of Airline Ambassadors (AA), a Dallas-based nonprofit whose members have traveled to 44 countries and delivered more than $10 million in aid.
The group has a long reach: In Nepal, AA members have trekked through the Himalayas to deliver medicine to remote clinics. In Ecuador, an 8-year-old girl who lost her arms in an accident received prosthetic limbs thanks to the efforts of one ambassador. And in South Africa, seeds were delivered to help cultivate much-needed crops.
"We like to call it 'traveling to make a difference' or 'traveling to do good,' " says founder and president Nancy Rivard, an American Airlines flight attendant.
Ms. Rivard first came up with idea while mourning the death of her father and looking for a new direction in her life. "I had been traveling the world and saw all the things that people needed," she says.
Realizing her vision was not easy; airlines continually turned down her requests for donations, and very few colleagues expressed interest. At first, Rivard made trips on her own, delivering toiletries collected from hotels to the poor in Bosnia and escorting a Guatemalan girl to the US for heart surgery. Word of Rivard's humanitarian efforts soon filtered through the airline industry, drawing volunteers.
AA was launched officially as a nonprofit organization in 1997 (see www.airlineamb.org). The group now has more than 3,000 members, mostly airline employees from the ranks of American, United, Northwest, and others.
"We hand deliver the aid. We don't leave it at the airport. We don't send it in the mail. We go with it and see it delivered. It's very rewarding," Rivard says.
Members say that their easy access to cheap plane tickets and their global contacts have provided them with the stimulus to put more and more missions into action.
"Being an airline employee, I have searched for exactly what AA offers for many years," says United Airlines flight attendant Deborah Quigley. "I never dreamed that my life could be so useful and capable and contribute to less fortunate people of the world. This is how AA has empowered me, and I am totally committed."
On the trip to Argentina in late October, $30,000 in food, clothes, and medicine was delivered - vital aid for a country currently weathering its worst economic crisis in history. Medicine and baby supplies were delivered to a hospital maternity ward, wheelchairs given to homebound residents, and several hundred pounds of food taken to soup kitchens throughout Buenos Aires.
At the Casa del Niño 15 miles south of the capital, food, clothes, and goody bags packed with school supplies, shampoo, and toothbrushes were distributed to the 280 children that visit the center daily.
"This is like Christmas for us," one boy remarked with a smile, holding his new colored pencils and bath towels.
Argentina's 22 percent unemployment rate means that most of the children's parents are out of work. Crime, drugs, and violence are now a part of daily life throughout the sprawling suburbs and shantytowns of Buenos Aires, once considered amongst the safest cities in the world.
According to the center's director, Sylvia Balduzze, the hot food the kids receive at the Casa del Niño is often their only meal of the day. She says visits by the Airline Ambassadors help keep the children's spirits up during these difficult times.
"The children think about a future with more dignity, different from what they have now," Ms. Balduzze says. "So, the help and collaboration we receive to support the house is fabulous."
During the Argentina mission, some AA members made a research trip to Jujuy, a remote northern province on the Bolivian and Chilean border that has been plagued by malnutrition. Several dozen children have died of hunger in the region in recent weeks, a blistering wake-up call for a country known as the "breadbasket" of South America. AA hopes to return to this region early next year.
Donations for the missions come from a variety of sources. Many of the larger airline carriers have done an about-face in recent years and are now among AA's biggest sponsors. The medical supplies for the Argentina trip were provided by Lucile Packard Children's Hospital at Stanford University and Applied Materials of Santa Clara, Calif.
Despite corporate donors, AA continues to struggle to fund missions. Members must pay an annual $35 fee in addition to covering all of their own travel costs - an often expensive endeavor, but one they say it is worth it.
"It is very addictive," says United Airlines flight attendant Derrian Wannebo. "When we set the Argentina trip up, I had to drop a couple of work trips just to be able to come here." Ms. Wannebo also traveled with AA this year to an orphanage in Shanghai, China.
The female-dominated world of flight attending sometimes lends a sorority-like atmosphere to the missions. But when it gets down to helping those in need, the globetrotting volunteers display the same compassion for the sick and the needy as they do for cramped passengers.
"We all have the same ... feelings of wanting to care and to nurture," says Wannebo."