Special Olympics a life-changer for former Coast Guard staffer

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Five years ago, Angel Flood was all set to volunteer for the Special Olympics, traveling by car to Lafayette to a meeting.

That trip was aborted, she said, when she heard about the Deepwater Horizon explosion and instead, as a member of the U.S. Coast Guard, she had to report to her office in Morgan City. After a helicopter ride to the spill site, the investigator found herself in a boat escorting the rig’s survivors to shore.

The Special Olympics would have to wait until Angel retired and until another opportunity to volunteer came her way. Last October, Angel did retire. And in June, the Special Olympics World Summer games gave her the chance to realize her volunteer goal.

While most people were taking their final summer vacation before the start of school, Angel was in Los Angeles, away from her family, in the midst of the 7,000 athletes from 177 countries. “I heard so many different languages that I thought I wasn’t in the United States,” she said.

“It was a whim and a good time for me to take off,” Angel said, back in Houma after spending five days in Los Angeles working with the Special Olympians. Through a series of connections that began with a local priest and a Facebook friend, Angel said she used some of her husband’s air miles for a plane ticket, made a bid for a rental car online, booked a bed and breakfast in Beverly Hills and just went.

Angel said she felt a little selfish because she was spending her family’s money and she felt like she was on vacation, even though she was working. But her family is used to military life, when “the needs of the service bump the needs of home.”

Angel’s husband of 13 years, Patrick, was also an officer in the Coast Guard and also retired last October after 26 years of service.

After 20 years in the Coast Guard, Angel said she has the desire to help people and is raising her two daughters to feel the same way. “That’s what I did in the Coast Guard,” she said, “help people.” Over the years, she rescued people, dolphins and even sea turtles.

“I’m just drawn to working with people with special needs, and the Special Olympics caught my interest,” she said.

Angel’s husband knew when they married that she was emotionally tied to people and their struggles and to see people in need is bothersome to her.

“We make a good team,” and her two daughters, both 9, also support her efforts to help others. They plan to travel to India with her to visit Sr. Rani’s school and also have helped her with some local projects.

Angel first met the Rev. Joe Varughese, a native of India, when he was at Maria Immacolata Church in Houma and she was studying to become Catholic. “I helped him with his English, and when I told him I wanted to help others, he suggested I become friends with one of his friends, a nun named Sister Rani Joseph, who lives in Kerala, India. And I did meet her, through Facebook.”

The state of Kerala, Angel explained, is in northern India, which is one of the poorest areas of the country. “The people there are poor, so poor that they value money over food,” she said.

One night at the Special Olympics, the Indian group passed on getting snacks, even though they were hungry, she said, because of the cost. In reality, Angel said, the cost in America would have been about $1, but in India, that’s enough to feed several people. She also found herself having to explain tipping waiters and street musicians to her international friend. A U.S. dollar is worth about 70 rupees, she said, which apparently is a lot of money to them.

Sister Rani, a Roman Catholic nun, is the principal of a school for students with special needs and shares Angel’s desire to help children. At the summer Special Olympics, Sister Rani chaperoned 24 of her country’s participants to the United States, and their trip to Los Angeles spanned four days and included a 15-hour layover in Hong Kong and travel by plane and overnight train.

For Angel, while the trip was a chance to help people, it was also the chance to meet, in person, her social-media friend. “We were so comfortable with each other, because we had been texting and messaging on Facebook,” Angel said.

The two spent the day sightseeing, riding around in Angel’s rental car, which she described as a “the size of a roller skate.”

“We went to see the Hollywood sign and to the Walk of Fame – it’s amazing what you can find with a GPS and Siri,” Angel said. It was Sr. Rani’s first time in the United States and Angel’s first time in Los Angeles, although she’s been to big cities before, but to work, she said. Angel was in New York after 9/11, helping coordinate media interviews.

“I also took her to restaurants and to Starbucks everyday for coffee, because coffee in other countries is different and because someone had given her a Starbucks gift card before she left. Sister Rani had special permission from her order to wear clothing other than her traditional sari, so she often wore tracksuits. “She got a pass on wearing her habit and really she had to get special permission,” Angel explained.

At the games, Angel found herself following Sr. Rani, bouncing around from event to event, taking pictures and doing things like tying shoes and making sure the athletes were ready for competition, in sports like handball, power lifting, skating and volleyball.

The athletes were happy to be there and took pleasure in the simplest things. “But, I will tell you, they weren’t impressed with the food,” she said.

Angel, a native of Pennsylvania, said she grew up “mothering” as the oldest of five. She ended up in the military because when she graduated from high school, her options were limited, because her family had no means of sending her to college. She met her husband while they were both doing relief work in Rocky Mount, N.C., after Hurricane Floyd in 1999.

The family moved to Houma because of Patrick’s assignment. At first Angel stayed at home with the children, then worked in Morgan City and finally in New Orleans before retiring.

Angel said her life will never be the same after her California experience. She’s now more conscious of spending money frivolously. “ I had never met people with so little who were so grateful for what they have.”

She has also reached out the local Special Olympics organization to get more involved.

Angel’s beliefs are, “We live a blessed life” and “if we have it, why not share it.” She says she’s destined to do something that will help others and wants to inspire others, especially her children, to do the same.