We fly higher together. That’s Nicole O’Neill’s life motto when she’s teaching kids how to build a kite, working at Shell’s Puget Sound Refinery or spending time with friends and family.

Nicole – who lives in Anacortes, WA and works as a contractor in the refinery’s pressure equipment integrity (PEI) department as a database manager – said kite flying has always served as the guiding force in her life through the ups, down and everything in between.

She grew up on Orcas Island, which is one of the San Juan Islands near Anacortes, WA. She was raised by a single mom who put herself through medical school during Nicole’s childhood.

“Watching my mom do it all by herself gave me a deep appreciation for hard work and perseverance,” said Nicole. “No matter how difficult you think something is, you can always find the energy to do more. Even if you might fail, never give up.”

Military service puts life in perspective

After graduating from high school, Nicole joined the military as a translator for Persian Farsi, Dari and Pashto in the Middle East. She spent seven years working in numerous war-torn countries, including Afghanistan and Iraq.

“The hardest part about serving was seeing people’s entire lives destroyed in a matter of seconds…it really puts things in perspective,” she said. “But it also gave me a newfound respect for humanity and the goodness of people. Even when a mother had lost everything, she still wanted to invite me in for a meal.” 

Take a step back to find direction

Once she left the military, Nicole pursued two bachelor’s degrees in political science and international affairs from the University of Colorado – Boulder. When she entered, Nicole assumed she would land a job doing government contracts post-graduation, but she had a change of heart about halfway through.

“I decided to jump ship, move back to Western Washington and work a few odd jobs to give myself time and space to discover what I really wanted to do…and an opportunity came up at Shell’s Anacortes refinery. That was a game changer.”

Nicole said her time spent figuring out the next chapter reminded her that starting over doesn’t always have to be negative. “When things don’t go as planned, it’s easy to throw up our hands and feel like a failure. Instead, have faith in your abilities. You will find your way – it just may take a bit longer than you’d like.”

Nicole’s time in the military made her want to live more purposefully. “I wanted to make a significant impact on people’s lives moving forward, but I had to figure out what that meant in a civilian world.”

Her job at Shell involves a lot of database management for a critical function at the refinery. The PEI department plays a key role in ensuring safe operations at the plant currently and for years to come, and Nicole said everyone takes their jobs extremely seriously.

“The attention to detail is impeccable, and everyone believes in the value of teamwork since we wouldn’t succeed without it. A dedication to safety across all levels is embedded in the culture,” she said.

Her time in the military definitely impacted her job at the refinery. “I learned not to sweat the small stuff. Life is precious, so use your time wisely and spend it with the people who matter most.”

As a result of her service, Nicole also said she’s a stickler for timeliness and delivering everything on her to-do list. In addition, she uses capitalized letters at all times.

Kite flying helps ‘escape’ trauma

While Nicole flew kites for fun as a kid, it wasn’t until she entered the military that flying kites became an escape from some of the things that she witnessed on a daily basis.

“I don’t know what I would have done without flying,” said Nicole. “I had started to lose hope in my ability to change the world for the better, and kites helped me re-center.”

During college, she made friends with a local kite shop owner and eventually received a sponsorship offer from a kite maker. Fast forward a few years, and she now serves as the president of the American Kitefliers Association, which aims to spread the joy of flying kites with people of all ages around the globe.

Nicole is passionate about the connection and healing powers that come with kite flying. She began to tear up as she relayed how she has witnessed mute children speak for the first time after learning how to fly a kite. She also saw a firefighter with a traumatic brain injury walk for the first time in five years after learning how to fly.

“There’s just something so transformative about flying,” said Nicole. “There are no barriers to entry, and there aren’t any risks when you fail, which is liberating. No matter what language you speak, where you grew up, how much money you have and how old you are, you can fly a kite. The best part? Everyone flies in their own unique way.”

Let’s build connection

Nicole carries a kite with her wherever she goes (including the airport) and spends hundreds of hours each year traveling around the world presenting kite building and flying demos in schools, at festivals and at fairs – everywhere from India to Washington. She even presented a TED Talk last year about the power of kite flying. Her goal is to reach 10,000 kids every year through outreach programs.

“There’s a lack of connection in our world today, and I want to bring it back,” she said. “I hope to give kids an outlet to express themselves that’s not via phone or a tablet. It’s amazing to see people develop and express themselves in the purest of forms with nothing more than a piece of string and a little plastic.”

Nicole also found true love via kite flying. In 2010, she attended a local kite festival and spotted a man (now her partner) flying a kite indoors. “He was doing such inspiring things with the kite that I had never seen before, and I was instantly head over heels. You might even say it was love at first flight!”

Not surprisingly, whenever she and her partner have a disagreement, they always cool off by flying a kite together. According to O’Neill, kite flying helps people not only connect more authentically with themselves, but with those around them as well. 

Take the fear out of failure

Ultimately, Nicole wants to use flying to take the fear out of failure and show people that we could all benefit from practicing more empathy with each other.

“It’s easy to get inside our own little bubble and put on the blinders. I want to help kids and adults see the world around them a little bit differently…it’s a beautiful place if you know where to look,” she said. “Get out there and go fly a kite – you’ll be amazed with what you find.”

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