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Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Everyday Heroes: Robin Schmidt flies skies with compassion, shares passion for troops

By Steve Flairty
KyForward columnist
 

Robin Schmidt can’t wait to board her next commercial airline flight – and the next, and the next. The blonde-haired and perky 48-year-old woman from Covington absolutely revels in traveling to interesting, faraway places, but that‘s not the only reason she enjoys flying.
 

Robin Schmidt (Photo provided)

Schmidt, as a Delta flight attendant, sees each oncoming group of passengers she greets with enthusiastic eyes, as partners in a grand mission. She wants her passenger friends to join her in a project of caring, one she says “makes my job more intrinsically rewarding.”
 

Just take a typical day on the job, starting with a friendly smile as passengers board the airliner. Schmidt gives the usual welcoming greeting and appropriate safety information, then she adds an extra little announcement – a challenge. She tells of her passion for recognizing the service of U.S. troops, explaining how they often feel lonely and disengaged, and how there is a way to help.
 

“I’ll pass around a journal,” she says to the Delta travelers, “and I’ll give you an opportunity to write some upbeat words, tell a joke or maybe even a prayer…anything you would want to read if you were far away from home. This will give encouragement to the serviceman I’m currently supporting.”
 

No one is forced to participate, she emphasizes to all. Then Schmidt continues by telling the now fully engaged listeners of the “care” packages she sends monthly and that anyone interested in providing help would be greatly appreciated.
 

Since Schmidt started making her appeal five years ago, the response has been amazingly good, almost overwhelming at times.
 

“I have never had a negative word written in any of the journals,” she said, “and you wouldn’t believe all the nice people who give me a dollar, a five or more to use for our troops.”
 

Then there is the wonderful couple who started out by giving Schmidt $100 each for three servicemen, but their giving didn’t end there.
 

“Every three or four months, they send a check for $500,” said Schmidt. “Last summer, the gentleman sent me a check and said to me, ‘I know you’ll do the right thing with it.’”
 

She was shocked when she saw the couple had donated $5,000.
 

“I was in communication with one of my soldiers serving in Iraq who had talked about buying a truck when he came back from deployment,” Schmidt said. “He told me his price range, and the $5,000 check more than covered it. But even when someone gives me just $1, I am so blessed.”
 

In the last year, Schmidt has found donors who financed $2,100 toward her informal “Mail Call for Heroes” drive. The money is used for buying phone cards for the troops, “one of the favorite things they want,” said Schmidt.
 

She’s communicated with 84 troops since January 2002, and her care packages have been explosions of joy as they arrive in war-torn Iraq or Afghanistan, often between two to six weeks after shipping. Besides the all-important journals that are packed, the other items in the packages are thoughtfully conceived and include toiletries, snacks, and gag gifts like “silly string” and stuffed Tigger animal piñatas.
 

Pinatas?
 

“It’s very important that troops can build trust with the locals,” said Schmidt. “They might tell our troops where an improvised explosive device is buried, for example. This saves lives. The kids really like breaking open the piñatas, which they had never heard about before.”
 

The stuffed Tiggers are a big hit, and Schmidt receives a lot of feedback in the form of pictures. “That’s all I really want in return,” she said, “just send me a lot of pictures of their response when they receive the packages, or a quick note, so I know if they like what I sent.”
 

Sgt. Timothy Gallagher is stationed in Afghanistan and is an appreciative recipient of Schmidt’s caring gestures. “Robin has been such a blessing to me and all the soldiers she supports,” said Gallagher. “Not only does she do good and kind things for me, she also does them for my unit and the locals. Much of the things she sends are shared with the local school children. She really goes above and beyond the call of duty when sending extremely thoughtful gifts and also everyday items that are needed and hard to get a hold of here in theater.”
 

Schmidt received similar praise from former National Guard serviceman, Sgt. Ed Rees. “It is an easy thing to say the words, ‘I support the troops,’ but in my experience it is a rare individual who actually follows through with action on those words,” remarked Rees.
 

Schmidt has engaged students at the local Taylor Mill Elementary School, near Covington, in writing cards and letters to soldiers overseas who are being treated at hospitals. Principal Lois White called it “a fabulous program, with the whole school involved.”
 

White has started corresponding with a 19-year-old troop due to Schmidt’s influence. “We don’t want our troops to ever be forgotten,” said White, “and our school kids write the letters three or four times a year.”
 

Schmidt spends at least 20 hours a week with her military project, much of the time in a post office, but she has also carved out time to visit and support an orphanage in South Africa where a loving married couple has rescued orphaned children off the streets and provided physical, spiritual, and emotional support.
 

“Sharon and Grant are two amazing people,” said Schmidt. “I have gone to the orphanage, near Johannesburg, as part of the Airline Ambassadors program, and have gone numerous times on my own. I think of the children there as part of my family.”
 

For Schmidt, her life growing up in Seattle was, at the least, challenging. She was molested as a child, and she spent many years in counseling, a process “which helped me a lot,” she said. “I don’t mind that being out in public because it has made me what I am today.”
 

She also had difficulty relating to both parents, though later as an adult she developed a close relationship with her father. “They both died about 15 years ago, and I had a very difficult time with it,” she said.
 

As she struggled through her tough teenage years, Schmidt developed a deep Christian faith that, she says, “I would be nothing without.”
 

She sees her ongoing project to support the troops, along with her compassion toward vulnerable children in South Africa, as simply carrying out her part in “God working through me. I don’t think I’m anything special. I’m just an instrument.”
 

Though Schmidt is an affable spirit, one not easily bothered by testy, difficult people, she gets very disappointed at those who accuse her of being “political” in giving and garnering support for the U.S. military troops.
 

She makes it clear that she has no interest in the politics of the issue. “It’s all about individual sacrifices I’m trying to honor, and I know other people are getting involved because of what I’m doing,” she said.
 

Delta flight attendant colleague Joanna Morton calls Schmidt “the most unselfish, caring, honest person I know.”
 

Morton observed that Schmidt was in New York when the 9/11 terrorist attack occurred. “That event affected her so much, and her project is her calling – her passion,” said Morton, whose church in Ohio recently gave a significant financial gift to Schmidt’s work.
 

Because of Schmidt’s travels, her projects and her natural extroverted nature, she’s acquired a network of admirers and extended family all around the U.S., and even internationally. Her words uplift and exude gratitude.
 

A few entries she wrote to friends in Facebook recently demonstrate her positive persona:
 

“Thanks so much for your support.”
“It’s not about me, it’s about our troops.”
“Am thankful to have been able to support your brother.”
“My day is packed with shopping for monthly care packages.”
“There is no greater joy than making a difference for others.”

 

Recently, a newspaper article in the Cincinnati Enquirer profiling Schmidt sent her unique story rocketing all over the nation. Soon after the story was published, Schmidt made appearances on Fox News, ABC News as “Person of the Week,” and was profiled in People magazine. During a two-hour period after her story went national, Schmidt received 500 emails showing support and asking about ways to help.
 

She has also found new ways to support the troops, one of which is visiting and serving at the USO Wounded Warrior center in Germany. The exposure has taken Schmidt’s work to another level, but she has no plans for a more formal organization to develop.
 

“I want to keep it very personal,” she said. “Big organizations sometimes lose the personal touch.”
 

Schmidt‘s love and appreciation for all who risk their lives in military service is, in fact, very personal. She thinks about them in the morning when she awakens, when she lays down at night. She thinks of them while she tends to the needs of Delta flight passengers flying all over the world. She thinks about adding that extra bit of care to the care packages…the special kind of snack food, something representing the favorite team of a recipient, the piñatas, the “silly string.”
 

But always, there are the journals…
 

Said Ed Rees: “The care packages she puts together are unbelievable. But, without a doubt, the best thing Robin has done is to allow others to share in her endeavor and connect with servicemen through her journals. Reading through the journals I received, something I still do, connects me with Americans in a way I didn’t know was possible.”
 

She prefers to put the focus back on soldiers like Gallagher and Rees. “I am here for our valiant heroes who put themselves on the line, every single day. Our military members sacrifice more than anyone of us can imagine in a day,” Schmidt said.
 

It seems fitting that Schmidt makes her living by working – and serving – way up high in the clouds. If you think about it, it simply puts her that much closer to her ultimate destination, where she will win her own special pair of wings, and where others will journal kind thoughts toward her legacy.
 

But in the here and now, Schmidt repeatedly makes it plain what motivates her work: “I never want any of our troops to ever feel alone on the battlefield or when they return home.”
 

For more information about Robin Schmidt and her mission, visit her website here.
 

Steve Flairty is a lifelong Kentuckian, teacher, public speaker and author of four books: a biography of Kentucky Afield host Tim Farmer and three in the Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes series. All of Steve’s books are available around the state or from the author. Steve is a senior correspondent for Kentucky Monthly as well as being a weekly KyForward contributor. Watch his KyForward columns for excerpts from all his books. His most recent book, Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes for Kids is now available at local bookstores, and Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes #3, Steve’s fifth book, will be released in early 2013. Contact him at sflairty2001@yahoo.com or “friend” him on Facebook. (Steve’s photo by Ernie Stamper)
 

To read more from Steve Flairty, click here.

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