Carissa Orr’s compassion for others has led her all over the world.
Originally from Germany, she spent her formative years in Nashville growing up in different parts of the city like East Nashville, Donelson, and Clarksville while her father was stationed at Fort Campbell.
Now a flight attendant with Southwest Airlines, Carissa, 30, has traveled the globe extending compassion and helping others where there is a need.
FLYING as a DAY JOB
Ten years ago, Carissa was doing a pre-med program at Xavier University. She worked closely with a station manager for Southwest Airlines who told her to apply with the company. He wrote her a letter of recommendation, and she did. That same week she was asked to interview in Dallas.
“I applied for a flight operations job, or the people who take your ticket before you board, but they offered me a job as a flight attendant. I said I’d try anything for a year, and ten years later, I couldn’t escape it,” she said laughing. “It just gets easier.”
She said over the last ten years, she’s seen a lot of changes with the company. Southwest started out as a new kid on the block against the legacy carriers like Delta, United, Continental, and American Airlines, but now offers international flights rivaling those same big names.
“I love being a flight attendant because it afforded me the opportunity to do a lot of other things,” she said.
In 2009 when the tsunami hit Samoa, Carissa and another flight attendants were able to do aid work there.
Collecting over 300 pounds of goods including nonperishable foods and housewares through Southwest and friends, she and her colleague went around to different villages giving people what they needed.
“It was an amazing experience, and I was so glad I was able to help,” she said. “I had always done some volunteering in high school, but that trip helped me not only catch the bug of volunteering where there is a need but finding those needs in the first place.”
Carissa said although her occupation is a flight attendant, that’s not who she is.
“I’m a girl with a backpack and a dream.”
“I’m a person who just wants to help people in a tangible way,” she said. “I still believe in the goodness of us. Like everyone, I see the flaws in people, but as humans, we still have the capacity to be great, kind, loving people. If each of us starts to embrace it, little by little we could make it better.”
Carissa said she has read extensively about world religion to understand more people. She said one of the biggest things she’s learned from all of them is how to be more compassionate.
“Being gentle with yourself allows you to be gentle with others,” she said. “Who I am is what I do outside of being a flight attendant, but I take the core of me, which is helping people, to work every day. Everyone has a story, and everyone is going somewhere.”
SELF-LOVE and 30 EXTRA SECONDS
Seven years ago, Carissa was diagnosed with vitiligo, a skin disorder where the human body ceases to make pigment for the skin. She said scientists believe there’s an autoimmune component to the disorder that is either killing the pigment cells or stopping them from producing.
“I’m in a unique position because when I walk in somewhere, people know I’m there. I’ve come to realize that’s an extra 30 seconds that no one else has,” she said. “What am I going to do with that time and how am I going to capitalize on that? I’m trying use that time to extend more compassion and talk about things that people don’t want to like race, and to help people have more self love and self acceptance.”
Carissa said her perspective on her physical changes in the past seven years has been more positive than negative. She said once she accepted it and knew she wasn’t going to be sick then the progress of the disorder slowed.
“Stress certainly plays a role. The more you’re cool with it then it’s more likely to stay the same,” she said. “Now, I’m used to it, and I forget I look different sometimes.”
She said the disorder doesn’t hurt and it only affects her skin, making her a little bit more sensitive to the sun than most.
“If you get a sunburn on your eyelids, it changes your life, let me tell you,” she said.
Carissa got her dog, Boobie, five years ago while she was living in Las Vegas. After a bad break-up, she called her mom and asked her if she could come home. Being a flight attendant, she said it would cost too much to kennel him when she needed to work. Her mother agreed to watch her dog while she flew and she moved back to Nashville in 2015.
Being back in the place she calls home, she has mixed feelings about the growth and changes the city has seen over the last few years.
“Part of me is excited because change and growth are good. We’re getting some diversity, services, and different things in the community that weren’t there before. However, when the change doesn’t allow everyone at the table, that’s where I have a problem,” she said.
Carissa asked what about the black business owners who have tried for years to get a business loan and who were denied for whatever reason? She said those businesses weren’t allowed, but suddenly there are so many others popping up.
“The biggest thing is not having black people at the table in their community,” she said.
She said topics of gentrification and affordable housing affect minorities and those of a lower economic status disadvantageously until it displaces them further and further from the city.
She said she remembers when no one jogged down Gallatin Pike and people didn’t have strollers out in Inglewood because it wasn’t safe. Now, Carissa lives in Donelson because it’s not as expensive as the city and because it’s closer to the airport.
“I am for having these discussions and making sure everyone has a seat at the table. Let’s have some change and some growth but let’s do it sustainably and with all parties involved.”
“When I think of the word community it reminds of being younger, hearing the ice cream truck and seeing everyone running toward it,” she said. “I get pictures in my head. It says, meeting at the playground and playing basketball. Community to me says children and the adults around them who protect them and teach them important values.”
Carissa said her definition of community comes from when her mom used to tell her it wasn’t only her looking out for her but the neighbors as well. She said it’s a collection of experiences and like so, it’s different for everyone.
“What East Nashville looked like for us versus what Harlem is like for kids now is different in looks, but the feelings are still there,” she said.
Within the last few years, Carissa has volunteered multiple times, specifically with sixth graders at Kipp Infinity Middle School in Harlem, New York. For three years she volunteered with their annual camping trip. Each suummer, trips were organized to take those children from the heart of the city to camp and rent cabins in places like Arches National Park, Zion National Park, Bryce Canyon National Park and others in Utah.
“We’re talking about children who’ve never left the city, never been on a plane, and who have never been in nature,” she said. “And these kids weren’t hiking in the latest REI gear and boots. They were hiking in Jordan’s, Chuck Taylors, and jeans.”
For Carissa, the most moving thing was hearing the kids say that they were glad she pushed them to keep going and to not quit. She said to see how the children embraced the experience even though they were scared at times was incredible.
“I find that in the black community people want to learn about the outdoors. They want to go hike, and they want to go camp but either they weren’t brought up doing it and aren’t informed or just haven’t had the right experience.”
Carissa said she feels led to begin nature explorations for children of color in the Nashville area. She wants to offer classes on pitching a tent, hiking, and packing a proper hiking bag.
“If you can start with kids going outdoors then they’ll stick with it,” she said. “When we grew up we would always go play outside, but kids don’t do that anymore. Even now, I find myself calling my friends to go play outside, and I’m an adult.”
Thanks for reading Nashville!
Every Thursday at noon Neat Nashville embraces the community by highlighting an individual in a feature article that tells their story and voices their concerns about the city moving forward. It is our hope to inspire good change locally, to be a force of unity, and support the people we all call neighbors.
It starts with community. It starts where you are.