Tracy Peck was getting errands done Saturday when she got a string of calls and texts that stunned her – first from her tennis trainer, then from her best friend.
“Have you seen the CNN story?” both of them told her. “That has to be you.”
At first, Peck dismissed it. She was driving and had no clue about what they were referring to. Then she pulled over and opened the link that was sent. An image of the letter in her penmanship popped onto Peck’s iPhone screen. When she saw it, she says, memories from a plane ride 23 years ago flooded her mind.
She sat close to two sisters escaping the previous Yugoslavia. She recollected how youthful and scared the refugees appeared, how they helped her to remember her own girls and how their experience escaping war was heartbreaking and tragic to anything she’d ever dealt with.
She then reached into her purse before they got off the flight, taking out an envelope, writing a note to them and placing earrings with a $100 bill inside.
Peck had no clue then how much that gift would impact the girls. And until she read the CNN story, Peck said she had no clue that one of the sisters, Ayda Zugay, was trying to find her for nearly a decade.
Tears gushed down the 70 year old massage specialist’s face as she read the sisters’ depictions of how the gift had completely changed them. For quite a long time Peck, who lives in Rural Minneapolis, says she’d tried to teach her kids to be caring, letting them know no one can tell what impact your activities could mean to others. She never envisioned she’d experience such a staggering example of how genuine kindness can be.
She didn’t know how to contact the sisters, but knew she needed to try.
Family and friends assisted with a flood of emails, texts, and tweets, and less than 24 hours later, Peck and the sisters reunited on an emotional zoom call. She let them know she’d be changed for the rest of her life by hearing this latest chapter in their story.
Ayda couldn’t believe her eyes. There, grinning in the middle of her computer screen, was Tracy – the one who she’d been attempting to find for such a long time with just an envelope, a first name and her own recollections to help her.
It was 23 years after they’d sat next to one another in the center column of an overseas departure from Amsterdam to Minneapolis, eight years after Zugay previously posted anonymously on Reddit requesting help finding Tracy, days after refugee advocacy associations shared a video about her pursuit and only 34 hours after CNN’s story on her quest published.
Zugay remembered the woman who sat close to her and her sister had been holding a tennis racket and discussed playing in Paris. Furthermore, she realized she would always remember the delightful act of generosity welcoming them to the United States. She was excited so many more people now know the story, and is particularly thrilled to see many individuals tweeting that there should be more people like Tracy.
Zugay says she was flabbergasted to receive messages of help from as far as Brazil, Angola, and Brazil. On social media, many said they were motivated by Tracy’s kindness and offered ideas of other search avenues to find her. She felt roused to continue the search, but in the end, she didn’t need the ideas of amateur sleuths on social media. Instead, two of Tracy’s close contacts came to her!
Zugay saw a tweet from one of Peck’s girls at first, making her aware of the penmanship match. Then a tennis trainer connected with her. That coach, Susan Allen, also recognized Peck’s penmanship. But beyond that, the story seemed to click together.
However, Allen expected more verification and would need to show Zugay and Peck had been on the same plane. Allen contacted her fellow coach, Deanne Johnson. Together, they scoured their records to help. In may 1999, their organization Love To Travel gave women in Minnesota an opportunity to make a trip universally to play tennis and watch competitions. They led a group of 18 ladies – including Peck – to Paris that month to watch the French Open.
Johnson kept a scrapbook documenting the excursion. One page included a team photograph. One more included a receipt from a travel service with the team’s itinerary. The second leg of their return venture was a flight from Amsterdam to Minneapolis on May 31, 1999 – the same date that matched the route Zugay remembered flying.
Peck told the sisters how distinctively she recalled what it felt like meeting them.
“It just touched my heart so much that I just felt compelled that I had to help you in some way,” she said.
Zugay’s sister, Vanja Contino, chimed in from her Connecticut home.
“Your generosity is still in me,” she said, “because I’ve been paying it forward ever since.”
Zugay told Peck things she’d wanted to share with the note’s author for quite a long time – how grateful she was, the reason the gift had meant so much, how rare she knows such kind messages are, how they used the $100 to scrape by eating pancake mix and Cola for the whole summer. She conceded she’d been apprehensive about the zoom call at first, then realized she was actually feeling stronger.
Running into each other that day, and again at last 23 years after the fact, felt intended to be. They talked about the chance of meeting face to face in the future. Perhaps they might spend a Memorial Day weekend together in the future, celebrating the anniversary of when Contino and Zugay arrived in the United States.
Peck promised the sisters that when they do meet, she’ll make them the best pancakes they’ve ever had.