(CNN) — Ayda Zugay clasps her hands together, trying to keep her nerves in check.
She’s been waiting for this day for decades.
At any moment the woman she tried to find for so long will finally be here.
It’s been more than 23 years since a stranger on an airplane gave Zugay and her sister an envelope with $100 in it that would change their lives.
A CNN story last spring featured Zugay’s quest to find the woman and thank her. At the time, Zugay only knew that the woman’s first name was Tracy, that she played tennis and that her act of generosity had made a tremendous difference in the lives of two refugees from the former Yugoslavia who were just beginning a new life in the United States.
The story reached millions of readers — many of whom sent in tips to help with the search. Several of them saw the handwriting on the envelope and knew right away who was behind it: Tracy Peck of Blaine, Minnesota.
Zugay and her older sister, Vanja Contino, reconnected with Peck in an emotional Zoom call that weekend.
But they haven’t had a chance to meet in person — until now, when an invitation to appear as special guests on “CNN Heroes: An All-Star Tribute” has brought all three women to New York City.
It’s a joyful occasion. But as they wait for Peck to arrive, Zugay tells her sister that she’s feeling anxious and emotional.
What if the moment doesn’t feel right? What if they struggle to connect with each other? What if the woman who’s inspired her for so many years ends up seeing her as a disappointment?
Tears well up in her eyes.
“I don’t want to let her down,” she says.
Contino tells her sister that could never happen.
“You are an amazing person,” she says. “This is all happening because of you.”
The three women share a tearful embrace
Zugay and Contino hide themselves behind a Christmas tree covered with gleaming gold ornaments, hoping to surprise Peck when she arrives.
As they wait, the Midtown Manhattan hotel lobby where they’ve planned to meet is bustling. Guests toting suitcases and shopping bags dart past them, oblivious to the dramatic moment that’s about to unfold.
Even though they know she’s coming, Peck catches them by surprise when she finally appears.
“Hi!” the sisters shout in unison, rushing forward to wrap their arms around Peck.
“My lovelies!” Peck exclaims.
Her face reddens as tears stream down her cheeks. “Oh! This is such a blessing,” she says, and they hold each other tighter.
To Peck, the hug feels like an embrace from family members she’s known for years.
To Contino, it’s an amazing connection between the past and the present that she never imagined would be possible.
To Zugay, it feels like a moment of closure, and a moment of something new that’s just beginning.
They have a lot to catch up on
A few minutes later, Zugay and Peck settle down on the couch in Zugay’s hotel room. Contino sits on a chair nearby, snapping photos and taking in the scene.
They’ve exchanged some texts and messages on social media since their virtual meetup in the spring. When she got engaged several months ago, Zugay texted Peck to tell her.
But there’s so much more to catch up on, and so much to share.
The last time these three women sat side by side, they were in very different places, even though they were flying to the same destination.
On May 31, 1999, Peck was in her late 40s and had just finished a dream vacation watching the French Open with friends.
Contino, then 17, and Zugay, then nearly 12, had just said goodbye to their parents and everything they knew as they fled their war-torn country.
Peck was heading home to be with her family. Zugay and Contino were heading into uncertainty. They were seeking refuge in the United States, but had no idea what they’d find once they arrived.
Zugay didn’t speak much English then, but she sensed the compassion in her seatmate’s voice.
“We were able to communicate even though we had so many differences,” she says.
After hearing the sisters’ story that day, Peck handed them an envelope at the end of the flight, telling them to wait until they got off the plane to open it. Inside she tucked a $100 bill and the dangly earrings she’d been wearing.
“To the girls from Yugoslavia –” her note on the outside of the envelope began. “I am so sorry that the bombing of your country has caused your family any problems. I hope your stay in America will be a safe and happy one for you — Welcome to America — please use this to help you here. A friend from the plane — TRACY”.
Peck had no idea how much that gesture would come to mean to its recipients — and how much writing it would end up changing her life, too.
Contino, who’s now 41 and an anesthesiologist in Connecticut, sees the envelope as a reason why she still tries to prioritize giving to people in need, and why she’s teaching her two daughters to do that, too.
Zugay, a 35-year-old who lives in Boston, sees Peck’s simple act of generosity as the foundation of many things in her life, including her work with numerous nonprofits and the consulting company she cofounded.
And now that they’re finally reunited, Zugay wants to make sure Peck knows how much it’s meant.
“I thought of you for so many years,” she says. “It was almost like you were next to me in the things I was doing.”
For the sisters, Tracy’s handwritten note was a piece of a puzzle
Zugay unzips a black backpack, pulls out the envelope and hands it to Peck.
It’s in remarkably good condition, with no major wrinkles or tears. Zugay keeps it with her important documents and has tried hard to protect it.
“This is so wonderful,” Peck says. “I just can’t believe you kept this all these years.”
Peck says she’s amazed Zugay kept searching when so many others would have given up.
“Thank you so much for everything, Tracy,” Zugay says. “You’re such a beautiful person. I’m so excited for your joy to radiate across the planet.”
Zugay tells Peck she still remembers having a panic attack once when she thought she’d lost the envelope, and the many hours she spent looking at it and searching for clues. For so many years, that piece of paper seemed to be the only thing connecting her to a puzzle in her past she needed to solve.
Now that she and Peck have reunited, the envelope itself doesn’t seem as important. But what it symbolizes seems more important than ever. And that, Zugay says, is why she’s determined to keep telling the story.
“It’s been really beautiful to be able to elevate the message of welcoming people, and encouraging people to be kind,” she says. “You don’t have to be a wealthy philanthropist; you don’t have to be somebody who has a lot of power. You can be an average person, and you can have an incredible impact on somebody’s life.”
Tracy’s act of kindness has touched many others
Since CNN’s coverage of her search began, Zugay estimates she’s received more than 2,300 emails from readers who were moved by Tracy’s story.
Some shared their own experiences of reaching out to others or receiving unexpected support at moments when they felt lost.
One person wrote that they’d been dangerously close to suicide but reconsidered after reading about Zugay’s search for Tracy.
“Something woke up in me that was quiet for so long. … Instead of ending my life that day, I walked around the city feeling gratitude for people like Tracy in my life,” the note said. “Now when I think about what I hope to build out of my life, I will always think of you and Tracy.”
Zugay says it’s been overwhelming and inspiring to receive so many beautiful messages.
But while most responses have been positive, a few negative emails have also made their way to her inbox.
To Zugay, that’s important to acknowledge, too.
“That’s why I do the work I do,” she says. “The goal is for everybody here to feel belonging and welcome and to thrive.”
And no matter how many negative responses she gets, Zugay says finding Tracy makes it all worthwhile.
The three women go sightseeing in New York
When Peck learned she’d be traveling to New York, there was one thing she knew she wanted to see with Zugay and Contino: the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree.
“To me, the whole idea of Christmas is about love and giving and kindness,” Peck says. And who better to see the tree with than the women who’d given her such a beautiful reminder of how a small act of kindness can grow into something so much bigger?
So after hours of swapping stories about their family members, discussing their lives and careers, and sharing memories of the past and dreams for the future, the trio venture out to the packed sidewalks of Midtown Manhattan for a glimpse of the iconic sight.
At points, it feels like someone is shoving them from every direction. In the commotion, Zugay and Contino try to keep their eyes trained on Peck’s blonde hair.
“We can’t lose Tracy now,” Contino laughs, “not after we finally found her.”
They marvel at the Saks Fifth Avenue holiday lights display and snap selfies beside the tree.
“So beautiful,” Peck says.
And no matter how crowded the sidewalks around them get, the three women stick together.
Reuniting in person, Peck says, has brought even more unexpected joy than their initial conversation.
“Love and friendship among women is to me among the greatest gifts in the world,” she says. “I feel I’ve gained that bond with these two amazing women.”
They get a standing ovation at ‘CNN Heroes’
Waiting backstage the next day as they prepare for their appearance on “CNN Heroes,” the women marvel at the stories of this year’s honorees.
“There are good people in this world,” Contino says.
Zugay nods in agreement.
Before long, a familiar voice echoes in the event space as a video plays that includes excerpts from their May reunion on Zoom.
It’s Tracy — the Tracy. Hearing her voice makes Zugay feel instantly emotional. Now they’re together at last.
The audience gives them a standing ovation as they walk on stage side by side.
Their New York reunion is more than they ever expected
As they return to their New York hotel after the show, they rehash highlights of the night — the celebrities who stopped them in the hallway to marvel at their story, the many honorees doing extraordinary things for their communities and, best of all, the fact that they got to spend an entire weekend together after so many years apart.
Peck thinks back to the young girls she met on the plane and how brave they were that day.
“I wouldn’t have been nearly as strong as you were. I wouldn’t have been mature enough to do it. … I’m so proud of you, the two women you’ve become,” she says.
Zugay thinks back to her many years searching for Tracy, and what she hoped she’d find.
“You turned out to be so much more than I ever expected,” Zugay tells Peck. “Just hearing your voice means so much to me. I can’t wait to hear about our future days together.”
They’re hoping to plan a bigger reunion so more members of their families can meet. And next year, Zugay hopes Peck will be a guest at her wedding.
Still reveling in the many inspiring stories of the evening and the chance they had to share the moment together, Zugay says she feels so overwhelmed with gratitude that she won’t be able to sleep.
Over the years, the efforts of so many people helped her find Tracy — at least 17, by her latest count, from the first journalist to cover her story for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune to the videographer who helped her get the word out on social media.
Tonight, she can only think of one thing to do: write her own notes, just like Tracy did, thanking them.
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