It all began with a phone call I received in September 2019. Karen Milligan, Director of Athlete Leadership at Special Olympics Illinois, had a big opportunity for me -- a groundbreaking job opportunity with United Airlines, Global Platinum Partner of Special Olympics. Three years ago, my employment journey took off to new heights. I have collaborated with many colleagues and been able to highlight my skills and abilities as a Service Ambassador at United Airlines in Chicago (ORD).
One of the amazing Customer Service Leadership teammates I’ve had the honor of getting to know as a colleague is Jonna McGrath. Jonna, formally from ORD is now the Managing Director at LAX Hub. During her time at ORD, Jonna was instrumental in the founding of the Special Olympics Service Ambassador (SOSA) program. Shortly after being hired as an Original (OG) SOSA, I sat down with Jonna for a fun and informative conversation about the founding of the SOSA program. Tune in to our podcast conversation on Episode 450 of the Special Chronicles Podcast’s Unified at Work Series here: specialchronicles.com/podcast450
“You all have different talents, and you all bring different things to the job, but you all are so positive and motivated,” said Jonna, who continued her remarks about what my fellow SOSA co-workers and I bring to the United team. She said that we “serve as an inspiration to all of us, every day, to say there is so much you can do. You just must try, and we must work through the obstacles that are in our way, but nothing is impossible for us. We got you on board as a member of the United family.”
Another colleague who has been impacted by the SOSA program is my previous manager, Steve Suchorabski, Manager of Lobby Innovation and Solutions for Customer Strategy and Innovation at United Airlines Corporate Support Center. “I see every day how our Service Ambassadors connect with our customers the moment they walk into the airport lobby,” said Steve. “They provide a warm, welcoming smile and assist in any way they can. To see these young adults, hold positions that society once told them they couldn’t is truly the most heartwarming part of my job,” Steve continued. Listen to more of my podcast conversation with Steve on Episode 393 of the Special Chronicles Podcast’s Unified at Work Series here: specialchronicles.com/podcast393
I’m honored to hold the position of Service Ambassador at United Airlines. The opportunity to be part of the United family means everything to me. I feel so much pride showing up to work in a Special Olympics/United co-branded uniform, working among such a loving and supportive community. The relationship between these two organizations is truly helping to shape my future while letting me use my gift of communication to help others.
In over a decade of participation in Special Olympics, I’ve learned many leadership skills that have helped me, and any athlete, move into an inclusive workforce. A few of these skills I’ve learned include public speaking and interviews, getting outside of myself, having a global perceptive, taking initiative, and valuing all members of a team. One of the gifts I’ve used is the art of public speaking skills. Through coaching and on-the-job work experience, I’ve been able to show how to be an effective public speaker such as having eye contact, showing interest in who I am speaking to, being prepared, and the difference between giving a speech versus dialoguing with others.
Another skill and gift that has benefited me in an inclusive workforce is having a global perspective. A couple of years ago, a customer compliment was delivered to my email inbox. It all began when I was interacting with a United customer named Paul. First, Paul had observed me assisting other travelers before he had an opportunity to interact with me just minutes left to find the gate and board his flight.
“Not sure how I can express my gratitude to you for your professionalism,” said Paul. “Please, stay the course, and never change your commitment, concern, and compassion for clients as they attempt to navigate through the concourses of chaotic O’Hare.”
A final skill and gift I’ve learned during my inclusive job is to value all members of the team. It’s important to value everybody on the team regardless of the role each person plays. I chronicled the first year of my unified employment at United Airlines on the Special Chronicles Podcast. On the Unified at Work Series, you can listen to conversations about the meaning of inclusive employment. The Unified at Work Series is sponsored by Bridge, one of United’s business resource groups that connects people of all abilities.
In kicking off my second year of inclusive employment, I had the opportunity to talk with Oscar Munoz, former United Airlines Chairman and CEO. “It’s simply impossible to listen to Daniel-- even for just a few moments -- and not have your heart lifted and your sense of hope reassured,” said Oscar.
Listen and subscribe to more than 30 episodes of our Unified at Work Series on the Special Chronicles Podcast at specialchronicles.com/UnifiedatWork
Throughout the past few years of my inclusive employment at United Airlines, I’ve been able to display my gifts and skills as a leader, colleague, and employee through two platforms. The first is through my podcast’s Unified at Work Series. In 3 seasons of this podcast series, I’ve had conversations with my fellow SOSA’s and other employees-- both with and without disabilities. I’ve been able to host podcast episodes about the meaning of inclusive employment.
United Airlines corporate communications wrote, “The Special Chronicles Show delivers weekly candid, honest and inspiring conversations about the people with disabilities community that creates awareness, support, and advocacy within each week’s episode.”
Similarly to how I’ve used Special Chronicles as a platform to create awareness and advocacy, I’ve joined the board of Bridge Business Resource Group (BRG)as the SOSA Chair. The Bridge BRG is committed to being an ally for all employees and customers with disabilities. During my time on the Bridge Board, I’ve helped use this platform to advocate, educate, and connect.
In advocating through Bridge, we help to create internal awareness to keep accessibility needs in mind and partner with key organizations to empower disability inclusion for employment and travel. One of these key organizations is Special Olympics. As I’ve described in this blog piece and previous blogs I’ve written in October, I’ve shown through my words, and I’ve shown through my voice in podcasts how Bridge and United advocate for disability-inclusive employment.
Educate is the second key pillar at Bridge which plays a pivotal role in educating leaders and employees on how to support people with disabilities, talk to people with disabilities, and get engaged.
“This program [SOSA program] has done a lot for helping me grow with passion and showing people in this world, you know athletes just like us can basically achieve their goals no matter how long it takes,” said Lindsey “Lulu” Wesneski, United Service Ambassador from Houston. “What I do as a Special Olympics Service Ambassador at United I greet customers, I tag bags, I give directions, I interact with customers.”
The third and final pillar at Bridge is Connect. This BRG provides the bridge to support our community and external partnerships, recruit talent internally and externally, and communicate to members and United employees. Through the countless podcasts I’ve hosted over the past few years, I’ve had the opportunity, using Bridge as a platform, to connect with other United employees. Likewise, other United colleagues have been able to connect with our disability community.
If you are a Special Olympics athlete or know someone who has disabilities, I encourage you to find a company or organization that cares about diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). I highly recommend you look to companies, businesses, and organizations that are leaders in the Inclusion Revolution. It is when you are employed in an inclusive workforce that you can highlight your gifts and abilities. And once you are in this unified workplace, your colleagues can look beyond your disability and see that nothing is impossible for an inclusive workforce.
Join me and sign the Inclusive Revolution pledge in support of an inclusive workplace at jointherevolution.org/pledge