The first time Nancy Woodard of San Luis Obispo flew in a 4-seater plane into a remote town in Baja Mexico with doctors of the Flying Samaritans, her life was changed. “People were lined up. You could see them from the sky. They had walked or come on buses. We hit the ground running and never stopped.”
Woodard and several physicians worked at one of the group’s monthly clinics in San Quintin, where American doctors set up at the local hospital to provide free specialist services and surgeries that would otherwise be impossible to obtain.
Woodard, 59, saw people sleeping in cars with no engines, and met locals, mostly farmworkers, who were happy with so much less than she had. “I realized I was so spoiled. Think of the things you take for granted. Someone, somewhere is praying for that,” she said in an interview with The Tribune.
Eight years later, she has piloted two trips to the town and co-piloted 12 others. She earned her EMT certification at Cuesta College to be able to perform triage at the hospital, and she serves as treasurer and web administrator for Flying Samaritans International.
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And though significant, this volunteer experience is not entirely unique for Woodard, who is often recognized for her skill at assisting others.
After volunteering with the Literacy Council of San Luis Obispo for just one year, she was asked to lead a learning center. For 10 years, she has spent one afternoon a week matching up tutors and students of English and overseeing their sessions. Woodard, who works as an accountant, said it helps that she’s always been single and has no children — because she hasn’t had to wait until her golden years for the time to make a difference.
That meant that when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, she was able to travel there with the Red Cross. Woodard worked with teams of hundreds of volunteers three weeks after the storm to close or transform transitional shelters into official shelters. She drove a supply truck, and her accounting skills led her to monitor and oversee distribution of supplies.
She still occasionally volunteers with the Red Cross, training Girl Scout leaders in CPR. Woodard was once a Girl Scout, and attributes her ease with others to the experience. “Being a Girl Scout teaches you to think for yourself, and make decisions based on experiences. It makes you secure — you can be a leader instead of a follower,” she said.
Still, Woodard says that she doesn’t want her plethora of volunteer activities to discourage anyone from finding their own way to contribute, no matter how small. “I am anybody, everybody,” she says. “People can coordinate, write a newsletter, anything. I want everybody to look and see, ‘there’s a little thing I can do.’ ”
These little things have added up into a life of giving for Woodard, who says that volunteering has quelled the murmurings of insecurity and confusion she felt for many of her earlier years.
“I have peace because I know that my life has meaning and purpose. I’m never looking or searching or feeling like I don’t have everything I need.”
So many people fixate on what they can obtain or receive to achieve happiness. Because she has sought only to give, with no eye toward reward or compensation, The Tribune is honoring Nancy Woodard as an unsung hero.