Humanitarian of the Year: Scott Niswonger

I recently had the pleasure of attending the American Red Cross of Northeast Tennessee’s first annual Humanitarian of the Year award ceremony, which was in honor of Scott Niswonger. Scott has been a long-time supporter of our work here at ISC. For years, the Niswonger Foundation has helped us develop our outreach program for underserved at-risk youth in schools across the region and supported us in developing professional training sessions for teachers. They also helped us establish our livestream broadcasts from the National Storytelling Festival, which beams out to classrooms in all 50 states, and many other countries around the world. Because of these connections, I was already aware of many of his good deeds around the area, including the Niswonger Children’s Hospital, his many contributions to educational endeavors, and other deserving projects.

One of the speakers at the event was Dave Sanderson, who was a passenger on what’s now known as the Miracle on the Hudson: the 2009 flight that landed on the river between New York and New Jersey. Sanderson was the last passenger off the back of the plane, so his story was probably even more harrowing than those of his fellow passengers. But it was also an incredibly inspiring tale; everyone on that flight survived the ordeal, so it’s a feel-good kind of story. The experience changed Sanderson’s life.

The choice of speaker was fitting given Scott’s line of work. But for him, flying was never just a job; it’s a passion, and sometimes a duty. He was piloting planes solo by his 16th birthday, when most kids are learning how to drive.

In listening to Sanderson’s incredible tale, I was reminded of when I first met Scott at his office in Greeneville, Tennessee. I had only recently moved to the region from North Carolina. When he asked about my background, I told him how, just a few years before I was born, my parents were forced to flee their home in Uganda, which was under the control of a murderous dictator. I think of it as a sort of origin story that helps explain my passion for storytelling, because that’s all my parents had at the time: their stories. (The government took their house, their possessions, and everything else.) Once I was born, stories of their beloved home were what they had to share with me.

What Scott said when I finished that tale was truly remarkable: around the same time that my parents were fleeing the country, he was overhead, piloting a cargo plane that delivered supplies to 50,000-some refugees. Eventually my family boarded a flight to England, where I was born…and many years later, there I was in Scott’s office. It was a real testament to the power of storytelling that we uncovered this unlikely connection.

It was an honor to shake Scott’s hand in his office that day. It’s still a great feeling, knowing that someone who’s so supportive of our work at ISC was also there for people like my parents in their greatest time of need. (No wonder this guy is Humanitarian of the Year!) It was truly an honor to attend the event and have the chance to celebrate all of Scott’s contributions—not just to the region, but to the world.

Kiran Singh Sirah