VOLUNTEERS AT TRAVELERS AID ADD HEART TO A COLD AIRPORT TERMINAL
Author: Don Carter P-I Reporter
The young man from Woodinville is in the middle of a Sea-Tac nightmare: He has discovered he has only $3 in cash - and that he needs $7 to get out of the airport's parking garage.
The Port of Seattle's electronic credit card system for parkers isn't expected to start working until mid-April. ''I can't wait that long,'' says the young man. He has no checks, and none of his credit cards works in the airport's cash machines.
By the time he reaches the Travelers Aid desk, he is getting pretty steamy. He displays a wad of credit cards, every major one: ''But do you think I can get a lousy $4 with them? I could go into those gift shops and buy $30,000 worth of stuff, but nobody will let me charge $4 worth of cash.''
Virginia Parish, a Travelers Aid volunteer, listens patiently. She makes several phone calls, trying to find a solution. She then gives the young man $4 - which he promises to repay.
''I can't believe it,'' he says. ''Somebody's being nice to me.''
Parish is one of 200 volunteers who help give a heart to this otherwise coldly efficient and secure terminal. Seven days a week, they soothe ruffled feathers and assist stressed-out passengers. Sometimes the passengers get abusive.
''Once in a while you get uptight,'' says volunteer coordinator Helen Klos, ''but you try to remember that they're not yelling at you. They're yelling at a problem.''
Klos, who volunteers 50 to 60 hours a month, says she almost always feels good at the end of the day.
''It's the feeling you get from helping people,'' she says.
MOST OF THE helping involves providing directions - how to get from here to there, where to cash checks, what to do when your car has a dead battery, how to cope with lost luggage, and how to handle an assortment of other airport crises.
Although emotions often run high, Klos says she can't ever remember a volunteer suffering from burn-out. Most stay for years; Klos herself has been there 16 years.
''It's a good volunteer job,'' she says. ''You can choose your own hours, and we're flexible. I tell our older volunteers that if they've got something good to do, then they'd jolly well better take off and do it.''
Though many of the volunteers are retirees, there are also younger volunteers - many of whom have full-time outside jobs.
Airport volunteers are part of a tradition that goes back more than a century. Patricia Kelty, director of the Seattle Travelers Aid Society, says that the concept began in St. Louis, Mo., in the 1860s to help settlers who were stranded because of wagon breakdowns and other problems on their way west.
Later, Travelers Aid organizations were set up to assist immigrants landing in New York, and those who encountered problems at the railheads of Chicago. Seattle's society was founded in 1921, to aid troubled travelers arriving at the train stations.
Kelty says her society still serves what she calls ''the mobile homeless'' - people who become stranded in Seattle because a job has fallen through, or some other problem.
The society, supported by United Way and individual contributors, provides temporary shelter, and has a caseworker who helps find jobs. The emphasis, says Kelty, ''is on permanent solutions.''
Since 1974, the Seattle society has also served as anadoption agency
, to bring in orphans from Korea and other countries.
Volunteers help in the adoption service, by meeting their planes at Sea- Tac with fresh diapers and escorting them through immigration. With plane tickets purchased by prospective parents, the volunteers often fly overseas to pick up the babies.
That can be an adventure, says Kelty, who has joined volunteers on a number of flights. In December, Kelty went to Seoul to pick up some babies. She had no problems changing planes in Tokyo; the problems began as the plane approached Sea-Tac.
''That was Dec. 17, the day with all the fog, and we had to go on to Moses Lake to refuel,'' she recalls. ''Because there was no immigration there, we couldn't get off the plane, so we just sat there for five hours.'' The plane eventually flew on to San Francisco where, says Kelty, the real emergency began.
''We were running out of diapers.''
After the volunteers and babies were settled in a hotel, one of the volunteers commandeered the hotel limousine to run around San Francisco looking for diapers.
Meanwhile, other volunteers at Sea-Tac were comforting the nervous soon- to-be adoptive parents. They'd arrived at the airport to meet the expected flight only to find that adoptive deliveries - just like natural ones - don't always follow an exact schedule.
THE BABY deliveries and most other Travelers Aid services are free, but the society charges $20 for meeting children, handicapped persons and others and escorting them from one flight to another.
Most of the volunteers have war stories about this service. One remembers trying to talk a boy out of spending $25 in the airport candy shop. Another remembers meeting a 16-year-old girl, and then figuring out that the mother apparently had hired the escort service to keep the girl away from an unsavory looking boyfriend. Another remembers ''some real brats.''
''But most of the children are delightful,'' says volunteer Klos.
Among the rewards, she says, is that most of the people who are helped are really appreciative. ''We've got this one gal who stops by every time she's at the airport and gives us all a hug,'' she says.
The main problem with this kind of volunteer service, Klos says, ''is that you have to watch yourself in the department stores. You see somebody who looks like they need help, and you instinctively want to go up and help them.'' ne