Travelers Aid Chicago, Senior Corps-RSVP Members, Help Vulnerable Travelers & Passengers In Crisis
Janet Souter, Senior Corps-RSVP Member
Imagine arriving at O’Hare airport on a hectic afternoon. It’s your first time there. You’re a seasoned traveler, but you still can’t figure out where you can find that special kind of candy at which gift shop, or who sells teething rings for your crying baby. To make matters worse, you only know a few words of English. Then someone in a bright blue vest sees your distress and offers to help. You’ve found a sympathetic ear, a real person. In other words, a substitute mom.
That’s a Travelers Aid (TA) Chicago volunteer, trained to imagine themselves in your shoes and because they know how you feel, get as much joy and satisfaction from helping others as those receiving the help.
TA has been guiding travelers from around the world since 1851. Volunteers are found at the Travelers Aid Chicago desk in each O’Hare terminal ready to assist first-time fliers, refugees, passengers with special needs, runaways returning home or people fleeing a humanitarian crisis. They also answer questions as simple as “Where is the Garrett’s Popcorn Store?” Travelers Aid Chicago workers have seen it all. When these volunteers show up for work each week they know they’ll handle new problems, hear new stories.
Seven Senior Corps-RSVP members volunteer with Travelers Aid Chicago, we talked to three of them about their experiences:
Shelly Sherman, a retired United Airlines employee is a relative newcomer to Travelers Aid Chicago services. He volunteers simply because he enjoys the airport dynamic and energy. On Thursdays and Fridays he can be found at Terminal 5, helping newly arrived passengers, some of whom speak little English, but as he points out, “They speak in a quiet tone, respectful, mostly because of their culture. Many see me as an authority figure.” Language is seldom a problem; Shelly can usually find a person to help with translations and, “somehow we get through it.”
What does he like most about his duties? “Seeing the relief and smiles of all the people who come to us for support.”
After working several years as a travel consultant, Bonnie Master joined Travelers Aid Chicago and found volunteering at TA a perfect fit. She spends two days a week at O’Hare, dividing her time between the International and domestic terminals. She enjoys being busy with the knowledge that she’s helping to get people’s problems solved – it’s what keeps her going. During the peak arrival hours at Terminal 5 (3:00 pm-6:00 pm) she may guide as many as 300 to 600 people to their next destination.
In addition to answering numerous questions, volunteers keep their eyes and ears open and call the authorities if they spot anything unusual, such as left packages or abandoned suitcases. “We are the eyes and the ears of the airport,” Bonnie says, “but I’ve never felt frightened.”
Bonnie often shares a desk with Rosann Vitale. Volunteer Manager Tony Medina says they work together so well, they’re like a “well-oiled machine.” Rosann has been with Travelers Aid Chicago for nearly eight years, and although she usually mans the TA desk, there are times when a passenger will approach and ask for help finding their traveling companion. At that point, she walks them to the departure gate where the “missing person” is found. “Most of the time, it’s adults who are lost,” she said. “Not so much children.”
She also deals with people who speak little or no English, but has a translator app on her phone. When all else fails, she sometimes phones the traveler’s relative who can interpret the passenger’s question and relay it back to her. Rosann says the best part of her job is “People thank you all the time. I taught school and once in a while parents would thank me. But now I get thanked every day and even kissed.”
Even the training experience can be fun. When he started, Shelly realized he didn’t know as much about the airport as he thought. In addition to sitting with an experienced Travelers Aid Chicago desk clerk to observe, volunteer trainees are sent on a “scavenger hunt.” This can include: finding the areas where service dogs can relieve themselves; locating United Service Organization clubs; times and places for religious services or currency exchanges.
Tony Medina says trainees are instructed on the best ways to pass on information clearly to passengers who may be overwhelmed with the enormity of the airport and its facilities. “But we instruct based on the volunteer’s level of comfort,” he said. “We let them learn at their own pace and tell trainees to put themselves in the shoes of the passengers.”
Volunteers don’t always sit behind the counter waiting for people to come to them. Often travelers don’t know that there’s help nearby, so some TA personnel operate in a “roving” capacity, on the lookout for people who appear lost or unsure where to go next. Shelly recalled seeing two women staring at the monitors and noted that they appeared confused. When he approached them he heard one woman say “Gee I wonder if my sister has arrived from Narnia.” The other woman started laughing. He looked at the monitor and said “Narnia?” “Yes, Narnia” repeated the first woman. He said “But Narnia is a movie. Do you mean Narita, Japan?” “Yes, she replied. “But I always call it Narnia.”
As with so many other services which depend on volunteering, Travelers Aid Chicago is always looking for more people like Shelly, Bonnie and Rosann.
“Every day is exciting, Tony says. “We get basic questions like ‘Where can I find diapers?’ Then there are people fleeing violent situations and need help. For every ten questions, seven are common but the rest are so unusual and that’s when you know you’ve seen it all. This job is the most fun I’ve ever had.”
Those who delight in meeting new and fascinating people (many from all parts of the globe), enjoy being around the hustle and bustle of a busy airport and want each day to offer new experiences should consider helping out at Travelers Aid Chicago, which is open 9-9 weekdays and 10-9 weekends, 360 days a year. (TA is closed all five major holidays.) The hours are flexible, but volunteers are asked to devote at least two days per month. They can be as low as five hours a month or ten hours, depending on the shift. For example, there is a 6 to 8:30 pm evening shift which can be worked two days per month.