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Monday,  July 22, 2024   3:54 PM
The search for Elizabeth Gallagher turns into travel charity initiative

Sometimes, a broken heart does not mean a broken spirit. 

In November 2014, Torontonian Jordan Axani had a successful career in real estate development. What he did not have was a travel partner for the trip of a lifetime. That previous May, Axani and his then- partner Elizabeth Gallagher (Liz) had purchased tickets to travel the world together during the holiday season. However, a break-up, albeit amicable, led to Axani being left with tickets in Gallagher’s name and no way to change them to another. 

But his whole life was to change with a suggestion that was made at a dinner party that month.

“Someone said, ‘So what’s going to happen with the trip? Are you still going to be going?’” said Axani. “And I said, ‘Yeah, I’m going to go.’ And then someone said, and honestly I still can’t figure out who suggested this, but I figure I at least owe them a nice bottle of wine, someone said, ‘Look, Elizabeth Gallagher is a fairly typical name. So why don’t you try to find somebody else who could use the tickets?’ And we all broke out in laughter at how preposterous an idea that would be.”

But the suggestion got Axani’s wheels turning and the next day, the young professional decided to post about his situation on Reddit. 

“I just basically said, like, ‘Look, hey, if your name is Elizabeth Gallagher and you want to go around the world, here’s a free ticket.  I don’t want anything – I just want you to do something nice for somebody else one day,’” he explained. 

Axani went to sleep that night, unchanged. When he woke up the next day, his life was completely turned upside down.  

“I woke up to 350 notifications and shares on Facebook. People from around the world had reached out, early media had reached out, some well-wishers, a lot of people saying, ‘Is this real?’ And it’s almost like time stopped for a second. I’ll never forget that sensation of looking at my phone and my stomach just sunk. I remember saying in the back of my mind, ‘Oh my God. Is this thing going viral and blowing up?’”

Axani then tried to kill the story, concerned about its effects on his ex and how this post may be perceived. However, a friend who wrote for Vice suggested he give an exclusive interview to clear up any misconceptions about what his intentions were for the post.  

“As soon as they did the interview, I thought it was going to be on the back of their website,” he said. “But it was on the front page and it was immediately picked up by Gawker, Buzzfeed and 30,000 other media institutions around the world. It was on the cover of the largest daily paper in India. This was truly a global thing. It still bewilders me to no end.” 

When offers came in that challenged Axani, it was to his friends and family that he looked.

“The moral implications are huge. There was significant interest from Hollywood. And you feel like you’re in the middle of this cyclone with all these things going on and all these people wanting things now. And I’m just this humble Canadian guy.”

Then along came 23-year-old Elizabeth “Quinn” Gallagher from Cole Harbour, NS.

“She tweeted a photo of her passport to me, with the number and date of birth blurred out,” said Axani. “And it had, like, this hot pink writing on top of it -- it looked like she did it in MS Paint, and it said, ‘Take me!’  And immediately I was thinking whoever this Quinn is, this is awesome.”  

Axani and Gallagher exchanged emails and “at the end of the day, in addition to me feeling very comfortable with Quinn, we shared a very close sense of humour and I just pictured it as somebody who would be really positive to travel with,” said Axani.

“We ended up developing this really cool brother-sister bond. I think quite honestly it was the best case scenario out of this whole thing.”  

Another important consideration for Gallagher’s being chosen was how she planned to “pay it forward.” 

“It said in the ad to do something nice for someone else,” Axani said. “And Quinn really had a really clear understanding about what she was going to do and how she was going to pay it forward. Travel is very transformative but travelling is a real privilege that not many people get and when given that privilege, it’s really something to try to savour it and to try to do something nice for someone else.

"Quinn hadn’t really travelled very much but she had decided she was going to teach in Thailand for six months. She first volunteered on an elephant reserve and then she taught grade three in a little town called Phichit, north of Bangkok. And she wanted to take this opportunity to go back to this community and bring the kids Christmas presents, which I thought was really touching and really nice. She went to the community and she just came back glowing with all these incredible stories. And that to me is the epitome of what the world is about.”  

Axani and Gallagher’s trip started Dec. 21 in New York City and continued on to Milan, Prague, Paris, Bangkok and Hong Kong, which was a last minute addition when travel plans to India were delayed. The trip ended in Toronto on Jan. 12.

Axani said a highlight of the experience would be hard to narrow down: “That’s a hard call between Prague and Hong Kong but I would personally say Prague. The reason why is we had an incredible amount of people reaching out to us and really inviting us out into their homes and their lives. It just made Hong Kong and Prague completely incredible. There’s no other word for it. One great example is a woman who wrote one of the most respected guidebooks on Prague offered to take us around for a whole day and show us some of her favourite sites and tell us some stories of the city. And that is something you just don’t get every day.”  

Axani also acknowledged travelling with a stranger sometimes caused some tension: “It’s just like travelling with anybody else, I suppose. I think no matter who I have travelled with before, there’s always a moment of tension. Quinn and I got very good at knowing when to spend time together and when not to spend time together. That’s really, really important for the both of us and for our collective sanity. But by the time we were done in Vienna and Prague, we really had a strong dynamic and just got each other.”

Axani said the brother-sister bond he and Gallagher formed was based as much in their differences as their similarities. “I have this intensity in anything that I do and it’s with me much of the time. And Quinn is very much a free spirit. I remember there was this one night someone stopped her on the street and said, ‘Oh, you’re Elizabeth Gallagher? Are you real?’ And she took out her passport and started showing the guy that she was the real Elizabeth Gallagher. And I remember walking up and saying, ‘Are you crazy? Whatever you do, don’t take your passport out at night in Bangkok.’ There were fun little things about being two people who were looking out for each other.”

However special the trip may have been, Axani is just as passionate about how this media attention has allowed him to pay it forward: “When the story broke, I heard from many hundreds of people, a lot of whom were sending these very sad, sad stories about they how they never had a chance to travel and see the world. They were just heartbreaking stories. They ran the gamut of folks that are terminally ill to those that are surviving abusive relationships to those that have children with developmental disabilities. The common thread among all of them is they said, ‘How can I have the opportunity to travel? How can I see the world?’

And so I started to look at the charitable landscape. I thought there was some sort of charity that was surely doing this kind of work. And you know what?  There was no one, which really struck me. I sat down with some personal advisers to say, ‘What if we try to do something really great with this? What if we decided to pay it forward and create a charity out of all of this?’ Three weeks later, we had a registered charity.”

Axani’s charity, A Ticket Forward, brings together donors, brands and organizations to fund and facilitate the travel dreams of survivors of abuse, cancer and warfare. A Ticket Forward believes that travel is transformative; it means the world. By leveraging the power of storytelling and the latest in crowdsourcing technologies, this charity helps deserving people transform their lives through the experiential impact of travel.

“We also have a sweepstakes that’s going on right now called #TheWorldAwaits and we’re actually giving away a trip around the world to a lucky fundraiser through A Ticket Forward,” said Axani. “For every $10 that you raise, you get one entry. And it’s going to be an itinerary that’s very close to the itinerary that Quinn and I travelled. So it’s a wonderful sweepstakes; however, it’s currently only open to Americans but we are working on a very similar program for the Canadian market as well.”

From a dinner party suggestion that started the adventure of a lifetime to building a charity to help others experience the same, Axani truly understands the power of travel to change lives forever – after all, just look at his own.

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