Do we ever truly forget an act of kindness that left a big impression on our lives? According to sisters Ayda and Vanja Contino, the answer is no.
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Twenty-three years ago, Ayda and Vanja were sent from war-torn Yugoslavia to live in the United States. The girls were scared and had no money. On the plane ride from Amsterdam to Minneapolis, Minnesota, they happened to be seated next to a kind American woman named Tracy.
Tracy Peck was returning home to Minnesota after a tennis conference in Paris, France. She listened attentively as the young girls described the terror they were fleeing in their homeland, and their story pulled at her heartstrings.
“We left with bombs falling all around us,” recalled Ayda, who was only 12 years old when she left.
Tracy was so moved by all they’d been through that she pulled a $100 bill from her wallet and took off her dangling earrings, slipping the gifts into a hotel envelope. Then she wrote a short note to welcome them to the U.S.A.
“To the girls of Yugoslavia, I am so sorry that the bombing of your country has caused your family any problems,” Tracy wrote. “I hope your stay in America will be a safe and happy one for you.”
Little did Tracy know that this note would become a talisman for Ayda and Vanja, and the key piece of evidence used to track her down over two decades later. As for the money, it meant everything to the refugees.
“When I opened up the envelope and saw the $100 I was taken aback because we actually didn’t have anything with us,” Ayda said with a laugh. “We had no money, not even a dollar.”
The sisters lived off of that $100 for months, eating only pancake mix and Coca-Cola all summer. Ayda also noticed that Tracy had underlined the word “safe” twice in her note, which comforted her during uncertain times.
“It was the first time that I felt, like, relief,” she said. “This is a safe place, and we can build a future here. I think that’s why the letter really resonated with me at that time. Because we went from like this drastic horror into this beautiful act of kindness.”
Ayda and Vanja settled into life in America, attending college and starting families, but Ayda never stopped thinking of the first act of kindness they experienced in their new country. About a decade after their chance encounter, she put out a call for help finding Tracy on Reddit and other websites. Soon other media outlets picked up the story, and CNN wrote a story about them. That’s how, 23 years after the plane ride, Tracy’s phone started blowing up one day!
Many of Tracy’s friends and family recognized her handwriting from the note she’d written the sisters. Not only that, but they recognized her giving spirit and knew it would be something she’d do. People quickly started working together to reunite Tracy with Ayda and Vanja.
Incredibly, Ayda’s mission to track Tracy down worked! They were able to set up a Zoom conference call to meet.
“It warms my heart beyond anything I’ve ever experienced in my life,” Tracy told Ayda and Vanja during the video conference.
She said giving them the earrings, note, and money was a “no-brainer” for her at the time, but she is so glad the gifts made such a difference in their lives.
“Your generosity is still in me,” said Vanja. “Because I’ve been paying it forward ever since.”
Tracy just hopes to encourage everybody in the world to be kind.
“What does it hurt?” Tracy asked. “Except it helps everyone. Smile, make eye contact, help anyone that’s in trouble or in danger. And I just don’t know why anyone wouldn’t do that. So, I’m very, very thankful that I have found you girls, that you have found me.”
Tracy, who has five children, says she now considers Anya and Vanja to be her daughters too! All because chance placed them in the same airplane row all those years ago. It just goes to show you — you never know what kind of impact even the smallest act of kindness can make on another person’s life.
Don’t forget to spread kindness and share this heartwarming story.
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