Charlene Sammis.

By Emily Steele

Charlene Sammis loved to fly. In 1985, at the age of 39, she was hired by American Airlines – at the time,  one of only 34 women pilots among the 4,000 pilots employed by American.  

During her career she piloted multiple aircraft, including 727s and 767s for American, and 727 cargo planes for DHL. Sammis grew up in Missouri, married at 21, and moved to Hawaii when her husband was stationed there by the Air Force. During her 15 years in Hawaii, she worked as a reservationist for Qantas Airways, divorced, learned to scuba dive, sail and became a pilot. Later she moved to California where she piloted for DHL.

 While based in California, with American, she came across an advertisement about the “Women for Sail” sailing course in Key West. She registered and completed the course. Her love of scuba diving, sailing and sense of adventure led her back to Florida to visit a friend who lived in Fort Myers. On her visit they came to the Keys to explore and, as Sammis put it, “I guess I got the Keys disease.” She transferred to Miami and eventually bought a home in Islamorada. 

“I loved it because the Keys’ climate is close to that of Hawaii, perfect for boating and diving. It was a cinch when I discovered that there was an active chapter of the National Organization for Women (NOW) in the Keys,” Sammis stated.

In 1992, when Sammis was searching for a house to buy in the Keys, Denise Downing was her real estate agent. They became friends through the search for a home and scuba diving.  Later she worked with Downing and others in developing JOY Inc. 

 “I was part of the second wave of founders. I attended the organizational meetings, visited the functioning senior center in Homestead and the original senior center operated by Monroe County,” Sammis said. “I, myself, am aging out of going to bars, restaurants and boating. The JOY Center offers me a place to talk with like-minded people, and provides me new mental challenges.” 

Sammis recently financed a matching donor fund drive for JOY Inc. She humbly talks about this act of kindness as a recognition of the hard work and accomplishments of the organization. “I do not have children and I am lucky that I have money to give. I thought about the money I had spent on travel and decided on the amount I could provide and the organization I wanted to donate to. I choose JOY Inc. because it is an organization that gives back to our community.”

Sammis sits at the table wearing a T-shirt with the slogan “Assuming I’m an old lady is your first mistake.” And it would be; she is an articulate, intelligent retired American Airlines captain who wears that T-shirt well.

The JOY Center offers vibrant programs and lifelong learning experiences for people over 50 every Wednesday, both virtual and on-site. This bi-weekly column will feature the many dedicated people who are working to achieve this goal. For more information contact [email protected].

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