Stranded at the airport in Phoenix on March 17, Rubin Swift wondered how he’d get through the next three days, sleeping on the floor with his 4-day-old daughter, Andrea. It seemed to be his only option when Frontier Airlines informed him that he couldn’t fly with the baby until he produced a birth certificate.
“I was out of money and the hospital told me that I wouldn’t be able to get a birth certificate for seven days,” Rubin, 43, of Cleveland, Ohio, tells PEOPLE. “I was worried that if security saw me sleeping at the airport with a newborn, they’d take her away from me and charge me with neglect. I was stuck.”
Rubin, who had flown to Phoenix to get custody of the baby from a previous relationship, suddenly thought of the friendly Banner University Medical Center volunteer who had offered to drive him to the airport that day and had given him her phone number. He’d met Joy Ringhofer, 78, in the newborn intensive care unit, where Andrea had been placed for several days as a precautionary measure.
When Rubin told Joy about his dilemma, she immediately offered to return to the airport to pick him up.
“I told him, ‘I’m going to take you home with me,’ ” she tells PEOPLE, “so wait right there.”
Joy Ringhofer and baby Andrea
“I couldn’t believe it,” says Rubin, who runs a small deli and has three grown children from a first marriage and four step-children with Tiffany, 32. “I’m black and she is white. I’m a stranger who grew up in the projects in the Bronx and she’s a great-grandmother who recently lost her husband. She knew very little about me, and yet, she took me in. Color wasn’t an issue to her. She showed me that in this crazy world, there is still compassion.”
On March 13, when Rubin and his wife learned that Andrea had been born, they decided that they could only afford to buy one airline ticket. So Rubin flew to Phoenix, thinking that he would be back home with the baby in a day or two.
“When he called me from the airport and told me that they weren’t going to let him fly until he could get a birth certificate in four days, I felt panicked,” says Tiffany, 32, who works as a security officer in Cleveland. “We didn’t have the money for a hotel room or a rental car and I didn’t want him to sleep at the airport. I was scared because it looked like we were out of options.”
Joy and Andrea
She was surprised when Rubin phoned her from Joy’s condo with the news that he’d be staying with the NICU volunteer until Andrea’s birth certificate was ready in four days.
“Miss Joy was like an angel,” he tells PEOPLE, “and she’d really bonded with Andrea. Whenever my daughter heard her voice, her face would light up. As soon as she took us in, I knew we’d be friends for life.”
Joy, whose husband, Charles, died of Parkinson’s disease in October, says she had a strong feeling that she should help Rubin when she learned of his plight.
Joy and Andrea
“There are a lot of dangers out there,” she tells PEOPLE, “but there’s a lot of good, too. I’d enjoyed talking to Rubin at the hospital and helping him with the baby. He was polite and kind and I could tell that he had a good heart.”
During their four days together, they spent a lot of time talking about their families (Joy has four children, seven grandchildren and three great-grandchildren), going on walks with Andrea, grocery shopping and even visiting Joy’s late husband’s grave.
“I could see the pain in her face from losing her husband,” says Rubin, “so at the cemetery, as we sat there with the baby, I said, ‘Hey, Charles, look — it’s your new granddaughter.’ We had some touching and wonderful moments. I lost my mom to cancer in 2007, so Joy really became like a mother or grandmother figure to me.”
Rubin and Andrea
When it came time for him and the baby to return to the airport, “We just knew that we’d always be in touch from that day forward,” adds Joy, who now chats regularly via FaceTime with Rubin and Tiffany. “We started out as strangers, and ended up as good friends. Rubin is very grateful to me, but I’m also very grateful to have had the opportunity.”
Tiffany and Andrea
Rubin hopes that their story will inspire others to step up and help in a stranger’s time of need.
“If you see an elderly person struggling to walk home, pull over and offer a lift,” he tells PEOPLE. “If you see somebody who doesn’t have enough money for bus fare, offer to help them out. Pay it forward — that’s what I’m taking away from this. Let’s return to a time when we all cared about one another. That’s what I’m hoping will happen.”