Percolating Peace through Illy's Colombian Coffee Farms

Percolating peace through illy's Colombian coffee farms

By Matt Adams , April 30, 2018

This story appears in the September issue of Hemispheres

Our van lurched and rocked back and forth as we ascended farther and farther into the remote hills of western Colombia. On either side of the narrow washboard road, dense jungle stretched for miles. People sitting outside a cluster of small homes smiled at us in disbelief as we passed. They were accustomed to seeing motorbikes and horses -- not big, top-heavy touring vans -- that far up the mountain, in an area that was too dangerous for visitors just a few years ago.

Fernando spent years fighting for the FARC. Today, he is a successful coffee farmer and advocate for peace.

After nearly an hour of driving, we stopped at a promontory overlooking a humid, mist-covered valley and walked down to a cottage tucked away among plantain and papaya trees. We took a seat on the patio and waited for the arrival of Fernando, an ex-commander in the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC), the Marxist paramilitary organization that waged war against the Colombian government for more than fifty years. In his past life, he wouldn't have dreamed of talking to outsiders like us. But now he's part of a different kind of revolution, one in which coffee is at the center -- specifically, the illy coffee that United serves its customers every day, to the tune of more than 72 million cups a year.

When United announced its partnership with the Italian coffee giant this time last year, the news was met with excitement from the airline's customers and employees who had voiced their distaste for the previous brew. But there was more to the selection of illy than just great coffee.

For years, illy has had the reputation as a company that prioritizes people over profits. And while illy sources coffee from 25 countries across the globe, Colombia's Cauca departamento is a particularly interesting example of a place where that philosophy is making a difference.

Roughly a decade ago, Fernando negotiated a difficult and dangerous exit from the FARC. He was one of the fortunate ones; many of his comrades weren't allowed to walk away. Fernando's second in command was killed while attempting to leave the organization. Threats aside, there was also the looming question of how he would earn a living away from the only job he had known since he was a very young boy.

Landscape of the coffee fields in Colombia.

"When I was with the group, I began looking at the mountains and at the coffee growing on them, and it gave me the idea to change my life," he said. With backing from illy, he's been able to do just that, leading a farming cooperative made up of former guerillas who combine to produce more than 50,000 kilos of high-quality Arabica coffee each year, coffee that ends up at the illy roasting facility in Trieste, Italy, and, ultimately as a key component of the dark roast blend on board United's aircraft. But, as I had seen over the previous days in Colombia, Fernando's story was just one of many that illustrate the impact that United's choice of coffee has on the people who make up the front end of the supply chain.

On the first day of my week-long visit, I arrived in Cali, Colombia's third-largest city and the capital of Cauca, where I met Carlos Lopez and Oscar Lasso. Lopez is the director of ASCAFE (Colombian Small Coffee Growers Association), a cooperative in Cauca, and Lasso operates a tourism company based there. The two would act as guides for me and a group of foreign journalists as we visited small family farms where much of illy's Colombian coffee is grown. During the ride from the airport, Lasso and I passed the time by talking about the well-publicized troubles that have plagued his homeland for years, particularly narcotics.

To illustrate a point, he stretched his arms from his knees to his forehead. "Before, you could sell a bag of coffee this big for $10, and a one-pound bag of marijuana for $200. It was an easy choice for many people."

Among the goals of illy's business practices is to make that decision a harder one. An uncertain future in agriculture, due in part to falling coffee prices, forced many rural Colombians to cash in with illegal crops. Others took to the jungles to fight for the FARC, preferring an AK-47 and a steady paycheck to poverty. But with the guidance of local cooperatives like ASCAFE and the Colombian Coffee Growers Federation (FNC), a national growers' advocacy organization, illy is committed to building economic, social and environmental sustainability by paying above fair value for beans that meet illy's high standards, supporting independent family farms, teaching eco-friendly growing methods and helping to weave together the fabric of a nation torn by half a century of war.

A fourth generation coffee grower, Lopez founded ASCAFE in 2004 and has worked diligently with companies like illy to, as he said, "To put producers in a better position to earn a better rate by changing the way that coffee is grown and sold." By forming the cooperative with his neighbors, Lopez found that they could have an influential voice and establish standardized growing practices to achieve the highest-quality yields, an area in which illy's expertise has been particularly valuable thanks to guidance from the company's agronomist. "One of our main goals is to recruit the brands to come to Colombia and bring their knowledge," said Lopez. "We don't want to just sell coffee, we want to build relationships with the people who buy from us."

One of the keys to changing the outlook for Colombia's coffee growers is laying that foundation at an early age. La Venta, one of Cauca's tiny farming villages, is a place where options for young people are limited. Roughly three out of a hundred will have the chance to attend university. Some might elect to move to a city like Cali to look for work. Others, like many of their parents, might be forced to find more illicit means of earning a living.

Coffee beans in a workers hands after being harvested from the fields.

Today, however, there are 55 schools in rural areas such as this that have adopted the so-called "Escuela y Café" curriculum, where students age 12 to 18 learn modern coffee production methods with assistance from illy, the FNC and ASCAFE. At La Venta's Efrain Orozco school, the children are mastering the art of growing thanks to a holistic approach. Each of their subjects -- Spanish, social studies, mathematics and natural sciences -- is tailored in such a way to teach them everything that a successful coffee farmer needs to know. In addition to their classroom work, they spend a portion of their days outdoors learning the different stages of cultivation, from planting the beans to harvesting them to preparing them for shipment to the end buyers. It's the kind of education that can enable them to bypass mere subsistence farming and build a viable, profitable business.

And as we witnessed with Fernando, illy is using its educational and purchasing power to do more than battle financial inequality; it is doing its part to further the cause of peace in war-torn Colombia. At a technological park we visited, 120 former FARC and other paramilitary commandos are learning to become independent coffee producers, growing beans that will eventually be sold to illy.

When we arrived, 30 of the ex-guerillas were in the middle of a three month long immersive introduction to coffee as a means of re-entering society. The park's open-air campus consisted of dormitories, classrooms and a microbiology lab where the men and women are studying the finer points of agronomy.

Worker drying the coffee in Colombia

Several of the participants were barely a year or two removed from being teenagers. Each of them was in the midst of a critical moment in his or her life, living under constant threat of violent retaliation for abandoning their brigades. While they felt a sense of purpose and security at the learning center, there was still uneasiness.

One of the men spoke to me on the condition of anonymity because of safety concerns. At age 23, he had spent 13-years as part of the FARC and had run away only 14 months prior.

When I asked him why he had joined up with the guerillas, his answer was the same as most of those whom we encountered: "Economico," he said with a shrug. He was soft spoken and shy, never looking me in the eyes as he talked. "My father left my mother and me and we needed money, so I had to do something to help. But after I saw the suffering, I regretted it. Now, I want a family, I want pride in my life and I want to have a future."

Each of them shared a similar desire to move on from the bloodshed of which they had been a part. Though physical and psychological scars are evident, they all expressed gratitude for the opportunity to live in peace. In many ways, they reminded me of the school children at Efrain Orozco, proud of their new skillsets and anxious to demonstrate what they had learned. They led us on a tour of the campus, showing us the processes for separating, sorting, washing and drying the coffee beans, and guided us through a quality test, with one of the men teaching us the proper way to use a glass pour-over brewer to sample the product. When I sipped from the mug he handed me, it was some of the best coffee I had ever tasted.

One of the workers showing the proper way to sample the coffee

After departing the technology park we headed to a nearby farm where we met several victims of FARC land mines who had come together to create their own coffee growing association. The group's director was formerly a rancher who was seriously injured while tending to his cattle. Another member, a man named Wilmer, had been a coca farmer. It was while walking home after deciding to leave the drug trade behind that he lost part of his leg. At one point, as a woman named Naomi talked of her nephew who was killed, Lasso became too overcome with emotion to translate for us, excusing himself. Finally, a guitarist stood up and played for us a haunting rendition of "Sobreviviendo" – Surviving.

…While someone
Proposes death on this earth
And makes weapons for war
I will tread these fields surviving
All against the danger, surviving
Sad and wandering men, surviving…

At the end of the week, we traveled to Medellín to attend the first-ever World Coffee Producers Forum. Growers from major coffee-producing countries in Latin America, Africa and Asia descended upon the city to hear luminaries including former President Bill Clinton, current Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, Columbia University economist Jeffrey Sachs and illycaffè CEO Andrea Illy discuss the issues facing the coffee industry, such as climate change, stagnating prices and a volatile commodities market.

illycaff\u00e8 CEO Andrea Illy speaking at the World Coffee Producers Forum

"It would have been inconceivable to have a meeting like this in this place even a few years ago," President Clinton said, while speaking about how economic development through fair trade agriculture has helped countries like Colombia overcome their violent pasts. For years, Medellín and its namesake cartel led by Pablo Escobar represented the worst of Colombia. Those memories still make it one of the most beautiful places most foreigners wouldn't dream of visiting.

After dinner on my last night in Medellín, I caught a cab back to the hotel. Winding through the city in silence, my driver suddenly arched an eyebrow and looked at me through the rearview mirror as though he had a secret to tell. "Want to see Pablo Escobar's house?" he asked. We passed rows of nondescript mid-rise apartment buildings and storefronts, then turned into a short cul-de-sac that dead-ended into one of the former drug lord's compounds.

It was more bunker than home, all concrete walls and concertina wire. The fortress that a wealthy and dangerous man constructed for himself, now sitting in shambles on a darkened street.

Escobar died nearly 25 years ago, and with him, a low hum of fear that hovered over Colombia. In the weeks prior to my visit, more than 7,000 FARC guerillas had handed over their weapons to the government as part of a new disarmament deal, choosing a path of peaceful political dissent to armed conflict. It would seem the country is waking up from a long, grim nightmare. After talking with people there, I walked away feeling optimistic. During one of our conversations earlier in the week, Lasso confided that he felt the same way. After living abroad for 12 years, he was back, anxious to see stability taking root.

If it's morning in Colombia, then coffee is helping to provide much-needed clarity. As President Clinton said during a panel discussion at the forum, "When given the chance, most people will do the right thing. But they'll also do whatever it takes to feed their children." By paying farmers a decent wage and protecting growing areas from environmental decimation, United's partners at illy are offering Colombians a fourth alternative to hardship, drugs and violence. So, as you relax and enjoy your flight, have a cup of illy. You'll be doing your part to drink to a better future.

Adventures in ancient Beijing

By The Hub team

Each week we will profile one of our employee's adventures across the globe, featuring a new location for every employee's story. Follow along every week to learn more about their travel experiences.

By Houston-based Quality Control Aircraft Inspector Rey Sacueza

As I thought back to my world history class in high school, a lesson about ancient China made me fascinated and intrigued with the country's mysterious and charming appeal. What really sparked my interest in this lesson was the Great Wall of China. That day I wished that someday I could walk and climb the stairs of this magnificent and amazing structure, built by human hands. 40 years later, this wish became a reality when my wife and I boarded a United flight bound for Beijing. Our time there was unforgettable – the experience was once in a lifetime for both of us.

Arriving in a country without knowing, speaking and understanding the signs/symbols and language made me feel very uncomfortable and out of my element at first. Even though we don't speak nor understand the language, to get to our hotel we managed to communicate with our taxi driver through sign language, the ultimate universal language of the world. Translation apps downloaded on our phones were also very helpful.

Exploring many sites in Beijing

Hall of Supreme Harmony, Forbidden City in Beijing, China


The next day, after a good night's sleep and with a full stomach following breakfast, we were ready and excited for the day of adventure. Our tour guide picked us up at our. hotel and guided us through the sights of Beijing. We experienced a bird's eye view of the Forbidden City from the highest peak of Jingshan Park, a spectacular, postcard worthy view. Seeing the cute, world-famous Giant Panda at the Beijing zoo chowing down on bamboo was also an experience to remember. We also explored the 2008 Olympic stadium called the "Birds Nest" and the aquatic center. We rode a rickshaw through the hutongs of the oldest neighborhood of the city and then into the Yonghe (Lama) temple with interesting works of art. At night, we attended a show at Red Theater featuring "Legend of Kung Fu," which was performed by China's leading performing artists, top kung fu practitioners, acrobats and dancers using precision artistry and skills. It was an amazing show not to be missed while in Beijing.

Continuing our adventures the next day, we were guided through a full day of experiences, full of seeing even more major sites Beijing has to offer. We explored the ancient and mysterious Forbidden City, strolled around the legendary Tiananmen Square, absorbed the majestic charm of the Summer Palace/Temple of Heaven and the sacred grounds and tombs of the Ming dynasty. After a long day of exploring, we headed to Quanjude Roast Duck Restaurant on Wangfujing Street, where you can eat the world-famous Beijing (Peking) duck. Here, a chef will carve the duck right in front of you and present it to you at your table - a mouthwatering dining experience and another must while in Beijing.

On our last day, we saved the best for last. As they say, "No trip to Beijing would be complete without going to the Wall." At last, my ultimate dream and the inspiration that brought us to Beijing: We were at the Great Wall of China. We walked, climbed and took many pictures of one of the most iconic wonders and largest historical sites in the world. It's also one of the greatest feats of engineering and architecture in the world. No wonder it's a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of the New Seven Wonders of the World!

Beijing is one of the most amazing cities in the world with countless once-in-a-lifetime experiences that are definitely worth the trip.

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Our shared purpose is to connect people and unite the world — and no organization better embodies that principle than Special Olympics.

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Find United in New York's Penn Station

By The Hub team

In July 2015, through an effort to showcase our dedication to the New York/New Jersey area, we opened a branded experiential space in New York's Penn Station. The space was created to allow our customers the opportunity to engage with employees, as well as to help provide information on new routes, promotions, sponsorships and amenities. During the work week, a few of our Customer Service Representatives are available as additional resources for customers to help with upcoming travel plans, booking future travel or just simply to provide travel inspiration.

Since opening, there have been a number of events and promotions such as teaming up with TSA for a TSA Pre✓® enrollment event and offering Global Entry interviews to make the process even more convenient for you. Events and promotions take place throughout the year so be sure to stop the next time you're traveling through Penn Station.

Our United space at Penn Station is located near the main concourse and Amtrak waiting area. There are Customer Service Representatives available at the space Monday through Friday from 9:00AM to 5:00PM, as well as promotions and events taking place live Monday through Friday from 7:30AM to 9:30AM and from 4:00PM to 6:00PM; schedule pending holidays and government observances.

Eating through Asia, Excursionist Perk style

By The Hub team

The best part about travel, according to Marc Marrone?

"Being able to taste and try the different cuisines," Marrone says, "because even if you don't speak the language of whatever country or culture you happen to be in, you can express a lot via food."
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Spoken like a true, world class chef. Marrone, the Corporate Executive Chef for TAO Group Las Vegas, Hollywood and Singapore, recently got to immerse himself in Southeast Asian culture – and cuisine – on a week-long foodie dream come true of a trip, thanks to United's new San Francisco-Singapore route.

Marrone experienced just how spectacularly grand and modern Singapore is – the towering Marina Bay Sands Hotel, the luminescent stalks of Supertree Grove and the curved roof of the Esplanade Concert Hall all amazed him. And few cities interweave modernity and greenery quite like Singapore, a fact he had great appreciation for. Look no further than the Gardens by the Bay, a 250-acre nature park featuring intricately designed, flora-infused structures.

But beneath all of those stop-and-stare attractions lied what resonated most with Marrone: the food. From hawker stalls and wet (food) markets to Michelin-starred fine dining establishments, Singapore boasts meal options that cater to every mood.

Sharing in those food experiences with others who hadn't yet been to Singapore was his favorite part.

"You know, to see someone's face when they get to try something for the first time --that you've already had -- is an incredible experience, to be able to share that with somebody," Marrone says. "But then on top of that, experiencing some things on my own for the first time with everybody was really a crazy and amazing experience. We got to eat some amazing food and got to try some amazing things, and see some really cool parts of the city."

Additionally, Singapore is a great launching pad to the rest of Southeast Asia — as Marrone experienced, thanks to United's Excursionist Perk. Who wouldn't want two trips for the price of one?

The Excursionist Perk is meant to give a free one-way segment to travelers on round-trip award itineraries between two different regions, as defined by the United award chart. By invoking the Excursionist Perk, travelers can get a segment for no additional miles within the region they're visiting as long as it's a different region than where they're starting. All they have to pay are the taxed and fees associated with the new segment. For example, Newark-London-Vienna-Newark would cost the same amount of miles as Newark-London-Newark.

Marrone cooking on the streets of Vietnam

Marrone getting around via moped in Vietnam


Marrone used the Excursionist Perk to add a day in Vietnam to his itinerary on his Singapore trip.

"I got to cook on the side of the street and eat some of the best food right off the grill on the sidewalk," Marrone said. "Little did I know how much of an impact the 26 hours we spent there would have on me."

To Marrone, Vietnam stands out more than any other destination he's been to.

"From the minute we got off the plane to then we got back on the plane, it was a full immersive cultural experience between all the different foods, we got to experience how we travel around Vietnam, and really got to spend a true day in the life of what it's like to be in Vietnam."

5 tips & tricks we learned

  • Eat at a hawker center more than once They're everywhere and Singapore is home to the cheapest Michelin-starred meal in the world (Liao Fan Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken Rice & Noodle).
  • The airport is a destination in and of itself The world's best airport for many years complete with a butterfly garden and rooftop pool. English is an official language of the country so no language barriers and it's a hub for Asian destinations so you're only a few hours from Bangkok, Ho Chi Minh City and many more.
  • Download Grab Singapore doesn't have Uber or Lyft so the Grab app is a must-have for getting around town.
  • There's more than one infinity pool in town While the iconic Marina Bay Sands has its very popular roof top infinity pool, you can also find one at the JW Marriott Hotel Singapore South.
  • You can still hit the beach in Singapore Singapore is home to Sentosa, a man-made island that features a beach that is over a mile long. You can also hit one of the two golf courses, 14 hotels and even Resorts World Sentosa, featuring the theme park Universal Studios Singapore and a casino.
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The many faces of our United family

By The Hub team

United is a second home to almost 90,000 people across the world. These employees work tirelessly day-in and day-out to help us run a safe, caring, dependable and efficient airline. We asked a few long-time employees from around our network about what they do, why they were drawn to careers in the airline and what they love about their jobs. Here's what they had to say.

Rosa Fernandes

Rosa has been a customer service representative at New York/Newark (EWR) for 31 years.

Rosa helps a United customer.

"Since I can remember, I've loved airplanes. I first traveled on an airplane back in 1978 when I came from Portugal. I was lucky enough that they put my family and me in first class on a 747 from Lisbon to America. I had a window seat … my face was glued to the window."

Joe Bunker

Joe is a Boeing 777 first officer based at Chicago O'Hare (ORD) for 24 years.

Joe pictured with his daughter, Callie.

"I enjoy speaking with our passengers, even if it is just saying 'thank you and goodbye' at the end of a flight. During irregular operations, it is rewarding to explain how and why the weather event (or maintenance problem) is affecting our operation."

Jim Hott

Jim is lead ramp service employee at Houston (IAH), and has been with United 35 years.

Jim pictured on a United ramp.

"In a nutshell, I am responsible for the safe loading and unloading of aircraft I have been assigned to service. This encompasses making sure all personnel are safe in doing so. This not only includes United coworkers, but vendors such as aircraft fueling personnel, aircraft cleaners, etc."

Marilyn Adkins

Marilyn is a senior production controller in Technical Operations at San Francisco (SFO), and has been with United 29 years.

Marilyn pictured with another United employee.


"I dreamed of working for an airline from the time I was 12. I wanted to work as part of an in-flight team, however my small stature didn't meet the early requirements of this group. I started working in the kitchens then … went to school to get my airframe and powerplant licenses which allow you to work on the aircraft. After a brief period as a mechanic, I entered management within Tech Ops."

M.J. Flaherty

M.J. is an operations manager in the Network Operations Center [NOC] in Chicago and has been with United 40 years.

M.J. pictured in the United NOC

"When I go home at the end of the day, I think about all of the people that successfully got to where they wanted to go. … I think people don't fully understand how many people are involved in getting a flight out, not only on time, but safely to the destination."

James Simons

James is the base chief pilot at Washington Dulles (IAD) and has been with United 29 years.

James pictured at Chicago's O'Hare Airport

"The best day on the job was when I first became a captain … I was the final authority on all things that affected the almost 160 people that were on board that flight. They were concerned with their upcoming business meetings, vacation plans or just visiting relatives, and they trusted me and my crew to get them to their destination safely and on time."

The gift of a lifetime

By Matt Adams , November 14, 2018

The last thing Newark-based Flight Attendant Jair Ripoll wanted to do was ask for help on social media. It just didn't seem right to him, airing his personal pain like that for everyone to see. But on a layover last fall, his friends and colleagues, Newark-based Flight Attendants Frank Luff and Colleen McClelland, urged him — pleaded, actually — to post news of his condition to Facebook in the hope of a miracle.

Ten years ago, Jair was diagnosed with a hereditary kidney disease. He was told at that time he would need a transplant as the disease progressed, but he had been unable to find a friend or family member who could donate one of their kidneys. Jair registered on the organ waiting list in Florida, where his family lives, praying that his name would be called before it was too late. With each passing year, the situation became more desperate.

At work, Jair kept the severity of his condition to himself. Flying was his safe place. The time he spent in the sky provided him a welcomed break from the fears surrounding his health. Frank and Colleen were shocked when he confided in them how sick he was.

"Colleen said, 'You never know how many angels are out there,'" Jair said, recalling how she encouraged him to tell his story on Facebook where his friends and fellow employees could read it and, hopefully, a potential donor would emerge. Jair was reticent, but Colleen and Frank convinced him by taking his phone and writing the post for him. Less than a minute after they published it, a message alert flashed across Jair's phone's screen. Someone had already replied.

"Steven was the first person to respond," Jair said. "I saw it and showed it to Colleen and Frank, and we all started crying."

Jair had flown with fellow Flight Attendant Steven Lepine many times and considered him a friend, but he never expected that Steven would be the first person to offer him the chance at a healthy life.

"I knew Jair had been sick, but I didn't know the extent of it," Steven said. "I felt like he was putting so much on the line with that Facebook post, and I just wanted to help him."

When Jair returned home to New Jersey, the two met for lunch and talked about what the transplant process entailed, including the battery of tests that Steven would need to undergo to make sure his kidney would be a good match for Jair.

"My family — my mother, especially — was worried," Steven said. "She knew the risks, but she also knew that once I decide something, I don't go back."

Things were going well until last October, when Jair's health took a sudden turn during a trip to Barcelona. When he got home, he barely had the strength to move. His friend, Flight Attendant Stephanie Torres, rushed him to the hospital in North Bergen, New Jersey, where doctors discovered that Jair had deadly levels of toxins in his body. They immediately put him on dialysis while Steven continued his tests. Finally, at the beginning of November, they got the call from the doctors at Saint Barnabas Medical Center in Livingston, New Jersey, where the transplant was to take place: Steven was fully cleared. The procedure was scheduled for December 6.

At 6 a.m. on the day of the surgery, Jair and Steven met in the pre-operation room. Joining them were Steven's mother, his close friend and fellow Flight Attendant Jon Little, and Jair's mother and brother, setting up the first meeting of the families. Though there was a language barrier — Jair's mother only speaks Spanish, Steven's only English — the emotions that filled the space needed no translation. "Steven's mom said to me, 'Now you become my son as well,'" Jair said.

A few hours later, they emerged from the operating room. The transplant had been a success, though the recovery process would be long. Steven returned to work in January and Jair should be cleared to fly again this month. The two talk almost daily, checking in on one another and offering encouragement.

"Jair is my blood brother now," said Steven. "We'll always have this connection."

Jon Little, who stayed by Steven's bedside during the operation, has remained in awe of his friend. "He's a very giving soul," Jon said of Steven. "He's an amazing person, but this took him to a whole new level. He's so modest, he says it's not a big deal, but this is probably one of the most incredible things I've ever seen."

Steven does indeed downplay what he did, and in talking with him you get a sense of the selfless determination that compelled him toward such an incredible act.

"I look at it as helping out another person," he said. "I'm not looking for recognition or anything like that. I never dreamed that I would do something like this, but the moment presented itself and the need was there, and I felt like I had to step up to the plate."

But for Jair, it was more than that. Much more. Because of Steven's gift, his life is forever changed and he struggles with how to adequately express his gratitude. "I don't even have the words, or know how to thank him for something like this," Jair said.

"The reason we want this story told is because we want it to be an example to other people at the airline," he continued. "The people you work with really do become your family. If someone has a problem, I hope our story will help them find the courage to come forward and ask for help. It's like Colleen told me: You never know who your angels are."

Join us in our wildfire relief efforts in California

By The Hub team , November 13, 2018

Today, we reaffirmed our commitment to California and to lifting up communities in need by announcing $150,000 in direct donations to the Ventura County Community Foundation and the North Valley Community Foundation for their efforts in areas affected by the ongoing California wildfires. We also launched a Crowdrise campaign to award up to five million bonus miles for individuals who make donations of $50 or more. All funds will go toward efforts to support affected communities in California. We also continue to work with the Governor's Office of Emergency Services and both community foundations with offers to fly first responders who need to get in or around California.

"United is deeply connected to the affected communities and with a profound sense of both sadness and duty during this difficult time, we are proud to offer our assistance," said Janet Lamkin, United's president for California. "We will continue to engage our generous customers, employees and MileagePlus members and work with local leadership to support all those affected by these devastating fires."

Donations to the Crowdrise campaign supports three relief partners:

  • American Red Cross
  • Ventura County Community Foundation
  • North Valley Community Foundation

Today's announcement builds on our continued commitment to California and recent campaigns to aid in response to wildfires and other disasters. Over the last 12 months, we have raised and donated more than $900,000 to help communities affected by the wildfires.

We are also offering a travel waiver for customers ticketed on flights to, from or through Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), Hollywood Burbank Airport (BUR) and San Francisco International Airport (SFO). Customers may reschedule their itineraries for travel through November 25 with a one-time date or time change, and we will waive the change fees and any difference in fare for flights booked in the same cabin and same arrival/destination airports.

An unforgettable first: Rhett receives his flight certificate

By Matt Adams

Like most parents traveling with a baby for the first time, Kristin and Tyler Hildebrand felt a mix of excitement and nerves as they boarded the aircraft with their infant son, Rhett, during a recent family vacation to Cancun, Mexico. As they settled into their seats and made Rhett comfortable for his big adventure, Chicago-based Flight Attendant Paolo Vento stopped by to say hello.

In talking with Vento, the Hildebrands mentioned it was their first time flying together as a family. Hearing that, Paolo's eyes widened. To him, a first flight is as memorable an experience as a child's first step or first word (not to mention a badge of honor for anxious moms and dads) and deserves the same sort of celebration.

"I asked Kristin if she kept a scrapbook and she said yes, so I asked her if she'd like a first flight certificate for Rhett," he said. "She was so excited."

It's a practice that Vento began a few years ago after a family asked him to take their picture to commemorate their daughter's first trip. He asked the parents if they would like a certificate, and it grew from there. Since then, Vento estimates he's given out 40 or 50 of them, making each one at home and mailing them out on his own time and his own dime. The certificates are inscribed with the child's name, the flight's date, the origin and destination, and a short message that reads, in part, "Thank you for entrusting us with this milestone journey through the 'Friendly Skies.'"

"You only have one first flight, and it's nice to have these kinds of things to remember it with," said Vento. "What if that boy or girl grows up to become a pilot? Now they'll have a certificate to show the first time they were on an airplane. It goes back to doing these little acts that show we care."

Mrs. Hildreband took a photograph of Rhett with his certificate and posted it to Instagram, which drew oohs and aahs from other moms. She even sent Vento a nice note and shared it with his supervisor.

"Thank you so much for your kindness and thoughtfulness to take the time to do this. We will treasure this forever," she wrote. "Getting your package made my day. The world needs more people like you."

Things like this come naturally to Vento, who has brought plenty of smiles to the faces of customers over his 24 years at United thanks to his exceptional brand of service.

"If you feel like doing something nice for the customers, just do it, especially if it's authentic," he said. "It's something they'll never forget, and that's what they'll think about when they think of United."

Lifting up immigrant families in California

By The Hub team , November 13, 2018

From mental-health evaluations to language and legal assistance, we are committed to addressing the most pressing needs of the thousands of immigrants that call California home. Earlier this year, we announced a $1 million grant to the San Francisco Legal & Education Network (SFILEN), a nonprofit that advocates for full access to social services and direct legal services to immigrant families regardless of their immigration status.

"United cares deeply about investing in communities we serve," said Janet Lamkin, president, California, for United. "We have been a part of the San Francisco community for 90 years, and we are proud to help SFILEN in its important work with the immigrant community."

Through a four-year partnership, the grant will allow the organization to provide 50 mental-health evaluations each year and 240 hours of language interpretation through SFILEN's hotline, legal consultations and clinics. Additionally, this grant will help SFILEN to hire two full-time staff members to a team that provides critical services to thousands of immigrants every year.

"SFILEN is very grateful for the partnership with United Airlines, and we are very excited about what we can accomplish together," said Marisela Esparza, director of immigrant rights for SFILEN.

This grant is one of eight that we have awarded in the key cities we serve, representing our commitment to invest in and lift up the communities where many of our customers and employees live and work. Each grant is a part of a total of $8 million to help address critical needs in Chicago; Houston; Washington, D.C.; Denver; New York/New Jersey; Los Angeles; and the San Francisco area.

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