Teen Flies Across Country Delivering PPE to Rural Hospitals

Daily Point of Light # 6870 Sep 23, 2020

Meet Daily Point of Light Award honoree TJ Kim. Read his story and nominate an outstanding volunteer or family as a Daily Point of Light.

TJ Kim has wanted to fly for almost his entire life. The sixteen-year-old has dreamed of be-coming a Navy pilot since he was only nine, and in April 2019 started working toward getting his pilot’s license. As he works toward his dream, TJ has now found a way to use his hobby to help some of those most in need.

When the country began shutting down in March due to COVID-19, TJ wanted to find a way to be able to keep up his passion of flying while also giving back to the community in some way. Brainstorming with his dad, they came up with Operation SOS, or Supplies Over Skies.

Under Operation SOS, TJ sources personal protection equipment (PPE) locally and delivers them to rural hospitals. The McLean, Va.-resident’s original goal was to deliver PPE to each of Virginia’s seven critical-access hospitals. Since March, TJ has more than exceeded that goal — delivering about 58,650 PPE on 17 different missions to rural hospitals in Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania.

“If there’s a need and I’m able to fly, then I’m going to help out anyway I can,” TJ said.

According to TJ’s flight instructor Dave Powell, of Aero Elite Flight Training, the teen had al-ready been asking around for aviation-related community service opportunities at the beginning of the year. Still, when TJ told him his idea for Operation SOS in March, Dave was taken aback that such a young person would want to help out in this way.

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TJ Kim, center, delivers locally-sourced PPE to rural hospitals in need throughout his area under Operation SOS.

“It’s one of those moments where you are just kind of blown away to see a guy be so selfless,” Dave said.

TJ collects all of his donated supplies locally, which include masks, gloves, shoe covers, head covers, and isolation gowns. Due to a recent and very generous donation, he is also now delivering ventilator supplies.

The aspiring pilot focuses on rural hospitals specifically due to his first and so far most memorable mission, to a hospital in Luray, Va. TJ said it wasn’t a big operation and he didn’t delivery a lot of PPE, but the hospital staff was still so appreciative. They told him how under-serviced the felt due to so many people focusing on helping out hospitals in big cities.

Dave has been on a few of Operation SOS’s flights, including that first one to Luray. He re-called noticing right away the definite need the hospital personnel had for the PPE. The personnel were waiting for them when they landed and were clearly so grateful to see them. Dave said the flight was one of the moments both he and TJ will never forget.

“Talking to those people and really getting the perspective on the rural hospitals, and for the first time really seeing how appreciate they are, really stuck out to me,” TJ said. “So the first [mission] is always going to be one I have in my heart.”

It takes at least a week for TJ to plan a flight, beginning with sourcing the donations and communicating on a fly date to the hospital. He then has to plan the flight itself, which includes tracking weather formations, wind and other elements. He also has to research where to land, which so far has ranged from on top of a mountain to the shortest-paved public-use runway in Virginia. Finally is what he says is the fun part — getting to fly to meet the people he is helping.

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TJ Kim, second from left, delivers PPE to rural hospitals in need through his volunteer project Operation SOS.

“The most rewarding part is definitely once I land, and getting to talk to the people with the hospital,” TJ said. “Just feeding off their gratitude and seeing how much of a difference I’m making has really been amazing.”

If you told TJ about Operation SOS a year ago, he said he would have laughed. The biggest thing he learned through this experience was just how many ways there are for someone to serve the community — and also that no help is ever too small, and no one is ever too young to give back.

“The amount of change I’ve been able to bring doing Operation SOS has been amazing, and it’s a lot more than I ever thought I would be able to do just as a 16-year-old kid,” TJ said. “A lot of people tend to think they can’t help out that much, but that’s not true. You can make a big difference.”

Do you want to make a difference in your community like TJ? Find local volunteer opportunities.

Morganne Mallon