Mission Possible: EMPA Grad Oversees Mass Exodus of Missionaries
PROVO, Utah – Aug 06, 2020 – While the COVID-19 pandemic introduced new challenges for almost everyone, few can say it drove them to sleep in a sleeping bag on the floor of their home office or work 120 hours a week. However, for BYU Marriott EMPA 2019 graduate Russell Harrington, who works as the missionary travel manager for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, such a situation was both a reality and a necessity.
During the pandemic, Harrington and his team were tasked with finding flights home for over thirty thousand Latter-day Saint missionaries. Since his team’s responsibilities occasionally require team members to extract missionaries from dangerous situations, they are well acquainted with urgency. However, they had never faced a task quite as daunting as a global pandemic.
Accomplishing this task was an all-day, all-night commitment. “Once my team started working from home, I was at my desk during all hours of the day and night,” Harrington says. “I had a sleeping bag on the floor, and I would just center my computer in front of me, lie down to rest, and get interrupted thirty minutes later with an urgent phone call or email or message. That's how I operated.”
However, Harrington was not alone in his endeavors. “My team always worked alongside me. We would have what we called 2 a.m. zombie parties, where we waited until two, three, or four o’clock in the morning for more information about which missionaries needed their flights booked,” he explains. “Once we received that information, we acted on it.”
Harrington’s team experienced several unique challenges, including getting more than one hundred missionaries who were serving in West Africa back to their home countries in the Pacific Islands. “We were trying to bring about 130 missionaries back home to the Pacific Islands, but most of the islands had closed their borders because they were so worried about their small islands being overrun with the virus,” he says. “All the flights were canceled, so there was no way to get those missionaries home. We knew it was dangerous to leave missionaries in West Africa where healthcare is extremely limited.”
Thankfully, Harrington and his team received help. “The consul general for Australia, who was living in New Zealand at the time, heard about our situation and directed her team to process visas so the missionaries could travel to Australia,” he says. “They processed over one hundred visas within a twenty-four-hour period. Normally it takes about three to four months to process that many visas.”
Working in these conditions was stressful, but one act of kindness from fellow BYU Marriott EMPA graduates gave Harrington much-appreciated encouragement. One night, he received an email from GrubHub, a food-delivery service; his fellow graduates had all pitched in to send him a $50 gift card. “The gift meant the world to me, to know that people were thinking of and rooting for me,” he says. “Receiving the gift card was special and a great representation of the students at BYU Marriott and the caliber of people who are willing to do something like that for a friend.”
This act of kindness was indeed a reflection of Harrington’s experience with BYU Marriott. “I wanted to go through the EMPA program because of the experiences that it would offer,” he says. “I hoped and expected that the experience would be a special one. And my experience far exceeded my expectations; the program was everything I wanted it to be and more.”
Harrington feels that his experiences at BYU Marriott prepared him to lead his team during this crisis. “If I could sum up all of the skills I gained at BYU Marriott into one attribute, it would be confidence. I gained the confidence that I needed to help lead my team in missionary travel,” he says.
Media Contact: Chad Little (801) 422-1512
Writer: Sarah Calvert