Supporter Spotlight: ‘You’re Never Too Young To Serve Your Community’
When COVID-19 threatened to ground TJ Kim, the 17-year-old pilot came up with a creative solution to stay in the air — and support health care workers on the front lines.
TJ Kim, 17, was on his way to earning his private pilot’s license when COVID-19 threatened to keep him grounded. But rather than sit by as the pandemic spread, Kim launched Operation SOS: a plan to stay in the air by delivering personal protective equipment to rural hospitals across the U.S.
Since then, Kim has delivered nearly 100,000 pieces of PPE to health care workers in need. For his efforts, he won the Prudential Spirit of Community Award as one of the top youth volunteers in America and chose to donate the money to Project HOPE.
Read on to learn how Operation SOS came together, what it’s like to land a plane on a mountain, and why Kim was so passionate to support Project HOPE’s COVID-19 response.
How long have you been training to be a pilot? Why do you love flying?
It all started when I was 15. My dad got me what’s called a discovery flight, where you go up with an instructor for the first time and they show you what flying is like and give you an introduction into that world. As soon as I went up in that flight, I fell in love with it immediately. I loved the freedom of flying.
Now, two years later, I’m training to get my private pilot’s license. I have more than 100 hours of flight time in the Cessna 172 Skyhawk G1000, which is the single-engine propellor plane I fly. I’ve had a lot of great instructors at a flight school called Aero Elite that operates out of Leesburg Executive Airport in Leesburg, Virginia, so I’ve just been blessed with a great community and flight school and have been working toward becoming a pilot ever since.
What do you love about flying?
The feeling is unlike any other. Just being able to go up there and be thousands of feet off the ground — something about seeing the sky and being so high off the ground, it’s just a really nice feeling.
What gave you the idea to launch Operation SOS and deliver PPE during the pandemic? How did you know that was what you wanted to do?
When everything first shut down in 2020, my school, Landon School in Bethesda, Maryland, started sending emails to help people try to find ways to get involved in community service, because that’s a big part of what we do as a school. I talked with my dad and we found a great way to marry the flight training and the community service by coming up with this idea to deliver PPE to rural hospitals when COVID-19 cases were surging.
At the time, the Virginia governor’s executive order deemed flight schools essential businesses, but I still couldn’t fly under dual instruction because social distancing would have been impossible. Luckily, there was an exemption for medical supplies, so that’s how everything came together and that’s how Operation SOS first launched last March.
What was it like making your first delivery? Were you nervous? What was the reception when you landed?
I was definitely a little nervous, but it was also very exciting. We’d been talking to the hospital for a while. Looking back, it wasn’t even that big of a delivery compared to the deliveries we make now, but the reception was so memorable. I still remember it to this day, just seeing how grateful the hospital workers were. They were showing so much appreciation and telling stories of how hard their communities had been hit. They were so thankful, and that’s kept me going.
How have you scaled up deliveries since then?
To date, I’ve flown 24 total Operation SOS missions across four states: Virginia, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and West Virginia. We try to deliver around 4,500-5,000 pieces of PPE per flight. That includes anything like head covers, protective wear, face masks, respirators, isolation gowns, nitrile gloves, shoe covers, and hand sanitizers. We’ve started delivering ventilator supplies, too. In total, I’ve sourced and delivered 94,217 pieces of PPE and ventilator supplies.
As the pandemic has evolved, have you shifted or changed plans? What are your plans to keep this going?
When we first started, the original goal was to deliver to the seven critical access hospitals in Virginia. Once I surpassed those seven flights, my goal started to shift as I started to think about how I wanted Operation SOS to run. Since then, we’ve decided I’m going to keep making deliveries, and I want to keep delivering until there’s no longer a need. If there’s still a need out there, I want to keep going sourcing that PPE and delivering to those who need them. As the pandemic has slowed down a little bit, the need has dropped, but I’m going to continue building it out and keep being available to those who need it.
What are some of the more intense or interesting flights you’ve had?
One of our deliveries went to Hot Springs, Virginia. To get there, you have to fly over this valley where there are lots of mountains and ridges. As we were starting to get close, maybe about 10-15 miles from the runway, we started to try and find the runway, and we really couldn’t see it anywhere. We were scanning everywhere trying to find this runway. All of the sudden, we saw there was a runway at the top of the mountain and were like, “OK, so we have to land there now.” It was a really cool airport, because once you’re on the ground you can see all around you.
I’ve also landed at the shortest paved public runway in Virginia. That comes with its own challenges. You have to do special takeoff and landing procedures to make sure you get off the ground and land in time. Those are two that stand out. Another interesting experience I’ve had is going out to the east coast of Virginia. I’ve gotten to fly over rivers and land over the water and that’s been really cool as well.
What did it mean to win the Prudential Spirit of Community Award and be named one of the top youth volunteers in the country?
It was an incredibly humbling experience and I’m really blessed that I was gifted that award. Going through the whole event was an amazing opportunity and I got to meet so many amazing youth volunteers and got to hear so many awesome stories. I’m just so thankful for Prudential and their award. The $5,000 they gave to me to donate was a blessing to be able to help out in any way. I’m really thankful to be able to participate in that award.
What is it about Project HOPE’s work that made you want to support the organization with that gift?
I knew I wanted to support an organization that was helping to fight the spread of COVID-19, something that aligned with my missions and my experience with Operation SOS. I had a new appreciation and respect for frontline workers, and at the time I was named the Prudential Community Spirit national honoree, COVID-19 cases, infection rates, and the death toll in India were surging. I knew I wouldn’t be able to fly PPE all the way to India, even though I wished I could, so I wanted to use my grant to support an organization that could. I knew Project HOPE was on the ground in India coordinating with local partners to help the hospitals that are overwhelmed and undersupplied.
I wish I could do more to help the humanitarian situation over there, especially with sourcing and delivering PPE and ventilator supplies, but I’m pretty limited in that capacity. I can’t make it all the way out. That’s why I’m honored to support such a reputable organization like Project HOPE as a partner. I really admire the work that Project HOPE does for the health of humanity around the world.
Throughout Operation SOS, the whole idea has been to go out and serve those who are in need. That’s why I went to rural hospitals, because they’ve just been crushed and they’re a little bit forgotten about. So just going out to the little guys, the ones that are in hard-to-reach areas — that’s what the mission’s all about. So even though the COVID-19 situation in America is starting to lighten up, we’re still seeing places around the world that are hard-hit and forgotten about. I wanted to keep the same spirit of the mission and donate to those who really need it.
What are your upcoming plans for the future?
My immediate goal is to serve my country in the United States Navy as a fighter pilot. Since I’m a rising senior this year I’m getting ready to apply to the Naval Academy and just finished the Naval Academy Summer Seminar. I’m also looking forward to finally having a football season in the fall after that was canceled last year. So I’m really looking forward to the upcoming year and future opportunities.
If you could sum up everything you’ve learned, what would it be?
One thing I’ve learned through this process is that you’re never too young to serve your community. If you had told me when I was 15 that in two years I could be making this much of an impact, I would have thought you were crazy. I never would have thought it would have been possible to participate in something like this, but with all the support I’ve been receiving from the community around me, it’s made it really easy. That’s what I would say — you’re never too young to make a difference.
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