Suzanne Williams: an eager escort for US-bound orphans

Korean orphan Young Ja looked out the window of the 747, her ebony eyes glazed with a mixture of fear and excitement as the plane touched down on American soil.

Arriving only with the clothes on her back and clutching a photo album sent by her new adoptive family in Denver, she turned to Suzanne Williams in the seat next to her and sought reassurance.

''It's OK, little person,'' murmured Ms. Williams, throwing her arms around Young Ja. ''You're beginning a wonderful new life now - in America.''

Young Ja didn't speak English. But somehow she understood Ms. Williams's soothing words. Tears welled up in her eyes and she smiled bravely.

It was a look Ms. Williams has seen etched on the faces of countless orphans whom she has escorted from overseas to the United States for adoption.

Suzanne Williams is one of more than 1,100 airline employees and their spouses who, on their own time, use their discounted flight privileges to deliver medical supplies to third-world nations and to bring back children for medical treatment as well as orphans for adoption.

As a flight attendant for Eastern Airlines, Ms. Williams could take advantage of her days off and flight privileges by sightseeing in Rome or sunbathing on Martinique.

Instead, the petite stewardess from Boca Raton, Fla., has walked the dongs of Seoul, the back streets of Delhi, and the barrios of Bogota for the sake of children in need. Just two days before the collapse of the Somoza government, she shepherded three adoptive children out of Nicaragua. For three days she searched the shacks of Lima, Peru, for an ailing child whom she found and escorted back to Minneapolis for treatment.

''Until 1977 there was no way I'd spend my days off trekking halfway around the world for a kid I had never laid eyes on,'' admits Ms. Williams.

''But then while I was planning to go to London on vacation, a flight attendant who was working with orphans on her free time asked me to go to Korea. I agreed. It changed my whole life. Now I help whenever and wherever I'm needed. . . . What love I give out I get back a millionfold.''

Ms. Williams, who has escorted as many as five children at a time by herself, has ferried more than 100 youngsters from all parts of the world.

''Some of the children are scared at first and hold me so tight that I think my arm will break,'' she says. ''But that fear quickly subsides. I think that in their own little hearts they know they are beginning a wonderful new life, and a peace comes over them. They just seem to know.

''The bonding takes place immediately, and I fall in love with each and every one of them,'' she continues. ''After traveling halfway around the world with them, it's hard for me to give them up.''

Airline employees such as Ms. Williams are part of the nonprofit Americans for International Aid, founded in 1971 by an Eastern Airlines ticket office manager, Richard Darragh, and his wife, Jodie, of Marietta, Ga.

Most of the AIA escorts work for or are spouses of employees of British Airways, Braniff, Cascade, Delta, Eastern, and Northwest Orient airlines.

Not all missions are overseas. AIA escorts children and supplies throughout the US as well. For example, Ms. Williams once delivered special mother's milk from Washington, D.C., to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., for a an infant doctors had judged critically ill.

''We have many dedicated members,'' says Mrs. Darragh. ''In a six-month period, 151 AIA escorts each made more than 10 trips. In February Martha Kelvig of Northwest Orient made two trips to Guatemala and 11 domestic trips for AIA.''

Although AIA is not involved in actual adoptions, it works closely with social service agencies such as FCVN, a Denver adoption agency that places third-world children.

''Although we have more than 1,000 airline employees and spouses who are willing to help, there are 10 whom we can call at 2 a.m. and say, 'There is a Korean orphan who needs an escort. Can you get over there right away?'

''These 10 - and Suzanne Williams is one of them - have a special, unselfish quality about them. They'd rather give up whatever plans they had if they knew a kid needed to be escorted back to the States. I wish I had a thousand like Suzanne.''

For Ms. Williams's latest mission, she escorted four orphans from Seoul to the Midwest. Three went to Kansas City. The fourth, 13-year-old Young Ja, was brought to Denver.

Waiting at the gate at Denver's Stapleton Airport were Young Ja's adoptive brothers and sisters - five Asian orphans, all handicapped and all adopted by Greg and Robyn Henk. The children clutched daisies, waiting to give them to Young Ja.

As Ms. Williams walked off the plane, she hugged Young Ja tightly and kissed her on the forehead. Then, as she always does, she stepped aside and watched another moving scene unfold - the welcoming of a child into a new family and a new home.

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