Sydney Raley’s hero moment is making quite an impression on America.
The story of how the 15-year-old Edina teen jumped out of a drive-through window at the Eden Prairie McDonald’s where she works to save a woman choking on a chicken nugget has gone viral in a big way.
First told by KARE 11, the news segment on Sydney’s quick-thinking jump into action on Dec.18 has been picked up by other NBC affiliates across the county, as well as CNN, the Today Show, USA Today, and the New York Post.
Scroll through the comments on any of the online stories about Sydney, and the word “hero” keeps popping up.
Not all heroes wear capes, one person wrote. “What an amazing young lady … I would say she is a hero,” wrote another person.
Not surprisingly, a “hero among us” is the headline of an Eden Prairie Police post about the incident.
Both Sydney and her father Tom said Tuesday that they are amazed by the far-reaching reaction to her kindly act. The city plans on honoring Sydney at a council meeting in January.
“I never expected it to blow up like it did,” said Sydney, a sophomore at Edina High School. “Honestly, my mind is blown.”
“I think people want some good news,” Tom added. “Everything has been bad for like two years.”
‘No time to waste’
For most of Saturday, it was just another typical shift at the job Sydney has worked at since the summer.
That is, until about 15 minutes before she was to clock out at 3 p.m.
“I was handing this woman a second bag (of food) when I noticed she was coughing an awful lot,” Sydney said. “And then she started gagging. Her daughter was completely panicking and freaking out. And I was kind of able to tell she was choking. Then I knew there was absolutely no time to waste.”
Sydney said she jumped out the drive-through window, managed to get the woman out of the car, told the daughter to call 911, and began doing the Heimlich maneuver on the woman. She learned how to do that during a first-aid training class she took when she was 11.
“I’m not the strongest person out there so it didn’t work when I did it,” she said. “But, there was a bystander that had parked and was waiting for his food. He was also trained in first aid. We worked together, and we were able to free it from her throat. It was a chicken nugget that she was choking on.”
Sydney stayed with the woman until the paramedics and police arrived.
“Right after we had gotten it out of her throat she was crying from shock,” she said. “I could also sense she was thankful.”
Sydney jumped through the drive-through window before. Those jumps, though, were to retrieve errant credit cards accidentally dropped.
“It was kind of like instinct,” Sydney said of helping the woman. “It’s too long to go around the door outside and I was like, ‘I have to help her now.’ So I jumped through the window.”
When driving up to McDonald’s to pick Sydney up that afternoon, Tom said he and his wife Stephanie were surprised to see the emergency vehicles.
“We saw the ambulance and cop cars and for some reason I looked at Steph and I’m like this better not be something for Sydney,” he said. “I was just joking. But, sure enough, it was for Sydney.”
‘It is who she is’
When he learned more about what happened, Tom said he was not surprised by his daughter’s heroism.
“It’s just Sydney,” he said. “Every day is something new with her. It’s kind of like it’s always been. It’s who she is. She’s very outgoing. She’s not really worried about what people think, so she’s willing to help or do whatever she needs to do to help people out.”
Tom and Stephanie are incredibly proud of Sydney, who is autistic.
“That is why this is all so amazing,” he said. “When (Sydney) was little, we were like, ‘Will she ever talk? Is she ever going to go to a normal school?’ When we first got the diagnosis and were super worried about it, we were like, ‘Is she going to live with us forever?’ Now I’m worried her (older) brother is going to live with us forever because she’s just fine.”
Tom said Sydney has a remarkable memory and can learn new skills quickly. Her mother told KARE 11 that her daughter remembers “everything as a script,” which most likely helped her recall her first-aid training.
He offered an example of her nimble mind.
“She wanted to learn Spanish,” he said. “So, she sat at the breakfast table with an app on her phone and learned Spanish in a month. When we go on trips, she can talk to the people, and you’re like, ‘What is going on right now?'”
After high school, Sydney plans to study art and animation in college. “I want to be a character designer,” she said. “I want to draw and animate, to make my own cartoons someday.”
In the meantime, Sydney likes working at McDonald’s.
(Though she lives in Edina, Sydney works at the Eden Prairie location because it is the nearest McDonald’s to her house. “Since I have to drive, we wanted the closest location,” joked Tom.)
“It’s been a super rewarding job,” she said. “It’s taught me about working together with other people. It’s taught me about practical skills I will need in the real world.”
Cops & Cash for the Holidays program
The two responding police officers to McDonald’s, 598 Prairie Center Drive, on Dec.18 each gave Sydney a $50 bill for her heroic efforts. They did so through the department’s Cops & Cash for the Holidays program sponsored by the Eden Prairie Crime Prevention Fund.
This is the second year of the program, which is funded by anonymous donors.
Each of the department’s 70 sworn officers receives $50 from the fund to distribute to a community member as a way to brighten people’s holidays.
“It’s a great opportunity for the officers to spread some joy during the holiday season,” said Lisa Toomey, president of the EP Crime Prevention Fund board of directors.
Toomey said Greg Weber, who retired as police chief in May, came up with the idea for the program last year when COVID-19 kept officers from taking part in the annual Shop with a Cop program. Weber thought giving away the money would be an excellent idea for the officers to interact with the public positively.
(When the officers hand out the money, they also hand out a card stating the money is compliments of the Crime Prevention Fund. That’s so people know it’s not coming from their tax dollars, Toomey said.)
Sydney was thankful for the $100 gift from the two officers. She plans to use it toward college.
Toomey, also a member of the City Council, was impressed by Sydney’s quick thinking. One officer, she said, agreed.
“I talked to an officer just today, and she was like ‘I can’t believe she had the wherewithal to go through the window and actually step into action,'” Toomey said. “She said, ‘Sometimes when things happen people are just standing around.’ And she said, ‘This girl was amazing.'”
Toomey said they would like to continue the Cops & Cash program next year and beyond.
“We hope to continue getting donations for it,” she said. “It’s a great outreach program, and it really helps people, too.”