No matter what shows up under Ayda Zugay’s tree this year, she says no present will ever compare to the gift she got in 1999 on one of the scariest days of her life.
Civil war was raging in Yugoslavia and bombs were closing in on her family, who lived in Belgrade — then part of the former Balkan country, now Serbia. So Zugay’s parents put their 11-year-old daughter and her sister on a plane to the U.S. by themselves.
Zugay, who now lives in South Boston, vividly remembers the fear, but remembers just as well the comforting American stranger seated next to her.
“I remember how kind she was to us,” Zugay said. “She was almost treating us like we were family.”
The stranger handed the girls an envelope. The outside of the envelope said, “I hope your stay in America will be a safe and happy one.” It was signed, “A friend from the plane, Tracy”
When Zugay opened it, she found a $100 bill inside.
“I couldn’t believe that somebody had so much empathy,” she said.
Zugay and her sister moved in with a relative who didn’t have too much more than they did. So that $100 fed the family for three months. Zugay says it continues to feed her soul to this very day.
“That’s actually why I kept Tracy’s letter, because it’s a reminder to me that people are good,” Zugay said.
It has also been the main driver in her life. Zugay now owns two businesses that promote environmental and social justice.
“The reason why I do what I do is because of Tracy,” she said. “Every decision that I made had to do with paying it forward.”
A few years ago, Zugay put out word on social media, hoping to find the woman who gave her life direction. News outlets like the Minneapolis Star Tribune wrote about Zugay’s search, but it was only after a CNN article caught the eye of a friend who recognized Tracy’s handwriting that the final connection was made.
After years, her message finally made it to Tracy Peck of Blaine, Minnesota. Her daughter reached out to Zugay: “You are looking for my mom Tracy Peck! Her handwriting is unmistakable. She remembers you girls from the flight!”
Peck, Zugay and her sister, Vanja, reunited last weekend.
“We just stood there and hugged and cried,” Peck said. “I just felt such a deep love for them.”
Peck gave away $100 to total strangers, but she says the gift she’s gotten in return is far more precious.
“They’ve taught me the slightest thing that you can do for someone, you don’t realize what impact that’s going to have on their life,” Peck said. “We have no idea.”
But if you’re lucky, maybe someday you will have an idea.
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