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How an 8-year-old made it back home after she was deserted in a busy airport

Wendy McDowell has used the experience she had in the airport as teaching tool for her son.
Wendy McDowell
Wendy McDowell has used the experience she had in the airport as teaching tool for her son.

This story is part of the My Unsung Hero series from the Hidden Brain team about people whose kindness left a lasting impression on someone else.

When Wendy McDowell was 8 years old, she found herself all alone in one of the busiest international airports in the United States.

"You know that feeling that we've all had," she remembers, "that feeling of being a kid and looking around and every single face is a stranger's face, and just how terrifying that is?"

It was 1979, and McDowell needed to fly from Bismarck, N.D., to Burlington, Vt.

No one in her family could go with her, so her parents decided it would be safe for a 19-year-old family friend to accompany her.

When they arrived for their layover at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport, they realized their connecting flight was canceled.

What the family friend did next still stuns McDowell to this day.

"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," she said. "I remember just feeling so desperate."

The chaperone bought herself a ticket back home and left McDowell to fend for herself. And she felt all alone, until a woman walked over to her.

Decades after the incident, McDowell still remembers how her unsung hero shaped her perspective.
/ Wendy McDowell
Wendy McDowell
Decades after getting deserted as a child during an airport layover, McDowell still remembers how her unsung hero shaped her perspective.

"I remember she was wearing white, and she came and she sat next to me," McDowell recalls. "And I just remember immediately feeling a sense of safety because someone was with me."

The woman could tell something was not right, and she got permission from McDowell to take over.

"And she just really gently spoke to me and asked me where I was going and where was my mother," McDowell says.

After reassuring McDowell, the woman convinced her to share her mother's phone number. And on the phone, she convinced McDowell's mother that her daughter would be safe with her. McDowell herself let her mom know she felt safe.

The woman in white was flying to Pittsburgh, but she made a detour to Burlington to drop off McDowell.

"And she said, if you trust me, I will take care of you. And she indeed — she took care of me," McDowell said.

The kindness of the stranger has left a lifelong impact on McDowell.

"The older I've gotten, the more I've been thinking about her," she said. "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."

She has used that experience to teach her son about kindness.

"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," she said. "So I just appreciate it more than words can really express."

To share the story of your unsung hero with the Hidden Brain team, record a voice memo on your phone and send it to

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Laura Kwerel
[Copyright 2024 NPR]