World traveler's top pastime: Making people feel at home

World traveler's top pastime: Making people feel at home

CHAMPAIGN – Elizabeth Dickerson was in Paris last weekend and Moscow in September. She'll soon make one of her regular trips to India. And she'll likely be in Europe again, or Japan or Shanghai, in the next several months.

Dickerson loves the travel and adventure and seeing new sights that come with her career as an international flight attendant.

"I like going and seeing and doing," she said. "I like learning about people and cultures, the way they do things."

But she spends most of her energy far closer to her Champaign home – raising three daughters, volunteering as a Girl Scout leader, organizing a twice-yearly garage sale of kids' clothing and neighborhood potlucks.

"She's this Southern firecracker who has brought our neighborhood together," said Jane Tock, a neighbor and friend of Dickerson. "Wherever she goes, it's fun.

"She's got this wonderful sense of humor and this Southern demeanor that is so relaxed."

Dickerson grew up in Mobile, Ala. When she came to Champaign about 12 years ago, she wanted to get to know her neighbors, so she organized a cookout. She's continued to gather the neighbors every few months for a potluck. The result has been a close-knit group who look after each other, Tock said.

Dickerson's children regularly visit Tock's parents, who moved to the neighborhood – into a house Dickerson found for them.

"She's never met a stranger," Barry Dickerson said. "She makes people feel very welcome. Part of it may be the Southern influence, but that's a big part of what attracted me to her. She's got a very open, very welcoming personality."

The couple met on a blind date, when they were living in different parts of the country. She was a flight attendant based in Raleigh, N.C., and Barry, originally from St. Joseph, was in graduate school in Ann Arbor, Mich. A mutual friend set them up, and Elizabeth flew to Ann Arbor.

"He was so sweet," she said. "I think we were both at the right time in our lives" for a relationship.

The two had a long-distance relationship for 2 1/2 years before getting married.

Elizabeth Dickerson has been a flight attendant for American Airlines for 24 years. She works international flights now, mostly to Delhi, India. She flies twice a month and likes flying to India because the trip is so long – 30 1/2 hours round-trip – that she can get in more hours.

The hardest part – besides jet lag – is balancing work and family life and keeping her children in a routine when she's gone.

"I've always thought that her flying makes her a better mother," her husband said. "She gets to travel all over the world, so she brings back different perspectives to the house. That is good not only for her, but for the children as well."

Dickerson brings back gifts for her girls, or items that relate to a country they are studying in school. But she has also exposed them to the harsher realities of life in other places. She has a stack of photos from India, of an area in Delhi she visits, where hundreds of people are living in shanties made of plywood and plastic sheeting.

She hopes to take her daughters to India.

"They need to see not everybody lives like they do here," she said. "You don't have to live in a neighborhood with lined streets and a roof over your head. You can survive in a lot of different ways."

About a year and a half ago, Dickerson and some colleagues at the airline began taking clothing and shoes to India with them. Dickerson asked a driver she uses when she's in Delhi to take her to an area where people might be able to use the clothing. He took her to the shantytown.

She said the residents get ringworm from going barefoot all the time, so she's been taking them shoes.

"But it seems like the same people are still barefoot," she said. "I think they're selling (the shoes) to get money to eat."

She's also given items to the workers at the hotel where she stays. She says the employees make about $2 a day and often commute from up to two hours away.

"They are so appreciative of anything, because they live so modestly," she said. "It makes you thankful that you were born in the U.S. and that you can have opportunities."

Dickerson and her husband – who also travels for his job in development for the University of Illinois College of ACES – feel strongly about their children being aware of different cultures, including learning a foreign language. So strongly that, five or six years ago, she found a Spanish teacher and began offering Spanish lessons in her home. She and her husband hope the girls can each live abroad for a year or so when they are older, and learn the language and culture of another country.

Dickerson also holds a popular three-day garage sale in the spring and fall, with dozens of families selling children's clothing, toys, cribs and bicycles. ("It's as much social as anything else," her husband said.)

And she walks several miles each morning with a group of neighbor ladies.

"She has so much energy," said Tock, who's part of the group. "I have to talk to her sometimes about that. I've got to say, 'Now, Elizabeth, you know that you're different and the rest of us can't keep up.'

"It's all that Mountain Dew, I think."

Tock's favorite stories about her friend involve Dickerson's creativity. She recruited Tock to play the Big Bad Wolf at a Little Red Riding Hood-themed birthday party for one of her daughters, and as a mourner for a funeral she staged this summer for the family's cat, Magnolia – complete with a eulogy delivered by Dickerson and a baby sitter who played "Taps" on her clarinet.

"She makes a lot of memories for everybody," Tock said.

Getting to know Elizabeth Dickerson

Age: 47

Occupation: International flight attendant for American Airlines

Family: Husband Barry Dickerson; three daughters: Mary Evans, 12, Claire, 10, and Caroline, 7

Previous career: Studied advertising at the University of Alabama and worked briefly at a department store's in-house ad agency before applying to become a flight attendant

Of interest: Dickerson is a talented seamstress. She made her own wedding dress. She used to make her daughters matching hand-smocked dresses, and she makes their Halloween costumes.

Most recent books read: One of the "Maximum Ride" adventure series for young adults by James Patterson, with daughter Claire for a mother/daughter book club. "The Kite Runner" – Dickerson said she connected with the book because of her travels and experience in observing other cultures. She also likes John Grisham novels.

Pets: Loves cats. The family has three: Bobbin and two new ones, Oreo and Camille.