Devin: Peter, what is your superpower?
Peter: My superpower is caring and doing humanitarian efforts most of my life.
Devin: John, what’s your superpower?
John: I grew up in a very large family, and the concept of getting along with people comes into play because, you know, you got to love brothers and sisters.
When Peter Teahen started thinking about this round-the-world trip, his wife was supportive but didn’t expect him to pull it off. After a year, when he announced his plan to actually go, she insisted he find a co-pilot. Luckily, marriage had connected the pair to a cousin who was also a pilot, John Ockenfels.
John, with over three decades in Rotary, was excited to make the trip and, after a few weeks of contemplation–and discussion with his wife–agreed to the journey and brought the fight to end polio to the flight.
That, it turns out, was just the beginning of their challenges.
“This was the trip that couldn’t be done, that shouldn’t be done, that nobody in their right mind was going to do. But somehow, we managed to pull that off,” John says.
Planned for 2020, the pair had their trip canceled by covid. Rescheduled for 2021, covid’s relentlessness canceled the second effort.
A third effort, in 2022, was blocked by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The duo had planned to take an established northern route that included stops in Russia. US-Russia tension after the attack resulted in revoked invitations.
Almost anyone else would have given up at this point. The primary alternative, a southern route, would require 15 and 17-hour-long hops over the Pacific, which their plane couldn’t handle.
Undeterred, the pilots just bought a plane that could make the trip!
They left on May 5th and returned on July 31st.
Over the years of preparation and during the flight, the duo raised millions for polio, counting the $2 for $1 match provided by the Gates Foundation.
“We believe we had just raised our first million dollars before our departure. Since then, we’re pretty sure that we’ve got at least another half a million that we’ve raised along the route. So that’s going to be a pretty good check to the Rotary Foundation,” John says.
Rotary leads the global effort, now funded primarily by the Gates Foundation, in collaboration with UNICEF, the World Health Organization and the US Centers for Disease Control.
John explained the history from his perspective, “I joined Rotary in 1986. They had just gotten on board with this polio elimination program. At that point, three-fourths of the world was endemic with polio. We watched these charts go from red to green as polio around the world went away.”
Today, polio is endemic only in Pakistan and Afghanistan. A 2022 visitor from Pakistan was contagious, and the first case of polio in the US in decades was recorded.
Peter explains the growing vulnerability around the world, including in rich countries:
In today's environment, where there's a decline in people vaccinating, especially post-covid, a lot of people have just dismissed vaccinations. The vaccination rate in the world is at the lowest it's been for years. That sets up trouble for children and families whose children will be exposed to the polio virus.
Studies show that if we don't eliminate polio soon, in the next ten years, we'll see 200,000 new cases of polio. It's time to stop. It's time to get across the finish line.
Completing the journey and raising so much money to end polio required the pilots to use their superpowers, Peter’s caring and John’s getting along with people.
AI Episode Summary
Peter Teahen and John Ockenfels completed a round-the-world trip in their Cessna airplane to raise money and awareness for the fight to end polio.
Peter had the dream to fly his plane around the world and started planning in 2018.
He approached John, who initially hesitated but eventually joined the trip.
Their original route was canceled three times due to Covid and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, so they had to plan a new southern route.
The route included stops in Newfoundland, Iceland, Europe, Crete, Jordan, United Arab Emirates, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Kuala Lumpur, Surabaya, Darwin, Canes, Brisbane, Pango Pango, Hawaii, Maui, and Oakland.
The trip was challenging, and they faced risks and limited communication, but they successfully completed the journey.
Their goal was to raise money for the fight against polio, as there are still cases in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
They raised over a million dollars before their departure and believe they raised another half million along the route.
They emphasized the importance of polio eradication and the need for continued vaccinations and funding.
Their trip was a spiritual journey, and they were inspired by the support and dedication they witnessed in communities affected by polio.
How to Develop Caring As a Superpower
Peter shared his feelings about the trip, which included time volunteering directly to give oral polio vaccines to children:
For me, this trip around the world became a spiritual journey. It was so true, especially when we were working in the ghettos in the poorest part of Karachi in Pakistan, holding babies in our arms and giving them the vaccine, talking to the parents, talking to the caregivers who are there. It moved me to tears.
In Afghanistan, a lot of the resistance came from the fathers of the children who would prohibit the vaccinations.
John and I witnessed in the ghettos of Karachi, where the fathers came out of their homes with their babies in their arms, and they presented their children for the polio [vaccine] drops. That brought tears to my eyes.
I'm thinking that is the power of humanity when in one country, people would be killed for giving drops to their children and through education and creating an environment where they felt safe, the men presented their children for the drops.
By following his example of caring, you strengthen your ability to care, potentially helping to create a superpower that enables you to do more good in the world.
How to Develop Getting Along With People As a Superpower
John grew up in a large family and learned a lot of lessons there. He shared a notable insight:
Being in that large family, we didn't really have a lot of money. We had to make do. But we also found out that we got a lot of help from other people.
I found out that returning that help, giving that help back and working in other entities, Rotary or Jaycees or whatever the organization is–many other organizations I've been working in–I enjoy that aspect of it.
Even today, now that I'm retired, my wife and I still spend many, many hours every week and every year in particular, doing things for other organizations for which we get no funding or no pay. And we're okay with that.
John has worked his entire career with his four brothers in the family business. He shared the advice he often gives to help people learn to get along. “There are differences for everybody and everything. Play to those differences. Work with those differences, and you can make a difference.”
By following his example and advice, you can emulate John’s ability to get along with others, serve in your community and make it a strength that can enable you to do even more good in the world.
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About Flight To End Polio: Our pilots, Peter Teahen and John Ockenfels, are raising awareness for polio eradication by piloting a single-engine aircraft all the way around the globe in 90 days. Only 700 pilots in history have ever achieved this feat, and less than 270 are alive today! Both Peter and John are Rotarians and members of the Fellowship of Flying Rotarians. They departed from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, on May 5th, 2023, and returned on July 30th. They flew a 1977 Cessna T210M (single-engine) airplane. Along the way, they encouraged support of ending polio forever throughout the world.
Company Facebook Page: facebook.com/flighttoendpolio/
John Ockenfels (he/him):
Pilot, Flight To End Polio
Biographical Information: John has been piloting small aircraft for over 43 years. He maintains antique training airplanes from World War II in his free time and is the proud owner of two WWII war birds.
He is a member of the Iowa City, Iowa A.M. Rotary Club and also served as District Governor for Rotary District 6000. Like Peter, John is also a member of the International Fellowship of Flying Rotarians.
John is now retired, having spent his career as CEO of City Carton Recycling, based in Iowa City, Iowa. John attended the University of Iowa and then served in the United States Air Force from 1972 to 1976. Two years of his service to our country was as a crew member on board an AC-130 aircraft in Thailand.
Personal Facebook Profile: John Ockenfels
Peter Teahen (he/him):
Pilot, Flight to End Polio
Biographical Information: Peter is an experienced pilot and has been piloting small aircraft for over 47 years. He is a member of the Cedar Rapids West Rotary Club and of the International Fellowship of Flying Rotarians.
Peter is a Funeral Director and President of Teahen Funeral Home in Cedar Rapids, IA. He is an author and a mental health professional. He was awarded the designation of Diplomate from the National Center for Crisis Management and the American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress. Peter serves on the faculty at the University of Iowa and is the founder of the Cedar Rapids Freedom Festival.
Peter has served in leadership roles on sixty-seven major disasters throughout the United States, Puerto Rico, Guam, Sri Lanka, Haiti, and the Darfur Region of Sudan. He responded to the September 11th World Trade Center attack, Hurricane Katrina, Indonesian Tsunami in 2004, and the Haiti Earthquake in 2010. He is recognized for his work on aviation disasters and is internationally known for his work in critical incident stress management and the psycho-social impact of disasters.
He has served as a volunteer for 19 years as national media spokesperson for the American Red Cross. He has been interviewed on Good Morning America, Oprah, Weather Channel, Fox News, the British Broadcasting Company and Aljazeera.
Peter is the recipient of numerous national awards of distinction that includes the National Public Spirit Award. American Legion Auxiliary. Previous recipients include Ronald Reagan, Hillary Rodham Clinton, Ann Landers, and Dr. Robert Schuller.
For a complete record of Peter’s boundless volunteerism, professional accomplishments, and philanthropic efforts, please visit PeterTeahen.com.
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Léa is a Sr. Investment Analyst at KingsCrowd who writes the company’s impact investing monthly article, providing investors with the best impact investing deals and market insights. She previously worked for Stanford’s accelerator, StartX, and led the first award-winning study on the Malawian startup ecosystem. She holds a degree in Anthropology from France and studies at UC Davis, working toward an MBA.