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Stephanie Hays, right, and her husband, Peter Woolcock, have been selected to participate in the "Live Anywhere on Airbnb" promotion. The city in the background is Shanghai, China, were the two met. Photo contributed by Lisa Joseph.

When it was announced last week that a Chattanooga family had been awarded a self-directed trip around the world by the vacation rental company Airbnb, we heard one response over and over.

"Wow," people said, "wish that was me?"

Jealousy aside, the Chattanooga family's story says a lot about fate and the power of positive thinking.

If you didn't hear the story, Stephanie Hays, a 35-year-old Chattanooga tourism professional, and her husband, Peter Woolcock, who works for the Chattanooga Football Club, were chosen to be part of the exclusive "Live Anywhere on Airbnb" promotion.

Hays, the daughter of Ken and Ellen Hays of Chattanooga, was one of 12 people worldwide out of more than 300,000 applicants selected for the program. For world travelers like Steph and Pete, being selected for the Airbnb program was like winning the lottery.

"We are just unbelievably grateful for the opportunity," Hays said. "It's something we were going to do anyway, and now we get to do it alongside one of our favorite brands."

Hays, Woolcock and the couple's almost-2-year-old son, Hays Woolcock, will soon leave for a 10-month journey to cities around the world. They'll choose their itinerary and Airbnb pays for travel and lodging at any of the company's worldwide rental listings. They can stay one to three months at each stop.

Incredibly, Hays said she and her husband had started talking about a year of world travel with their toddler before this contest ever appeared on their radar.

"The last few months we had started to kind of talk out loud about it, and started to save and plan for it," Hays said in an interview. "After 2020, not being able to travel and realizing what was important to us, we really made it a priority to travel and spend time with our son."

And then, this happened: For his wife's birthday earlier this year, Woolcock arranged to give her a Japanese Daruma doll. The doll comes with blank eyes. By Japanese tradition, if you fill in one eye and set a goal (or make a wish) the doll will help fulfill your heart's desire. Then, after the goal is reached, you color in the other eye as tribute.

It worked several years ago when the couple was gifted a Daruma doll by some Japanese friends and used it to help fulfill their dream of moving to India. They ultimately lived in Mumbai, India for two years, where Hays worked for a tourism company.

More Info

Follow Stephanie Hays and her family’s journey on Instagram at @awaywithhays. To see the website that was part of the family’s entry into the “Live Anywhere on Airbnb” contest, visit weliveanywhere.com.

 

When Hays got her birthday Daruma doll this year she immediately filled in one eye and wished for a year of world travel.

"We sat down and said, 'OK, this is the next goal. Let's do this,'" Hays recalled.

Incredibly, the doll worked its magic — again.

Truthfully, there was some merit mixed in with the magic.

Airbnb no doubt noted that Hays and Woolcock are confident travelers who, by their own count, have stayed in Airbnb listings in 19 countries as well as hosting Airbnb guests in their homes on three continents.

"If you can't be traveling, it's sort of the next best thing to welcome people into your home who are," Hays said.

Hays has an advanced degree in tourism. Her most recent job has been at Chattanooga Tourism Co. Woolcock, born in England, also has traveled extensively. The couple, who met in Shanghai, China, also lived in London and Mumbai before moving to Chattanooga in 2015.

Hays said she will be attending a workshop this week to learn more details about their coming Airbnb travels. She and her husband will both quit their jobs here, but they haven't ruled out moving back to Chattanooga one day.

"We've lived here six years, which is three times longer than any of our other stints," Hays said. "We are definitely gearing up for our next adventure."

Contact Mark Kennedy at mkennedy@timesfreepress.com.

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