- Associated Press - Monday, February 27, 2017

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) - About 12:30 p.m. on a recent weekday, Miriam Brewster stood up from her chair behind an information booth near the baggage claim area inside Will Rogers World Airport.

A fresh wave of travelers congregated around a nearby luggage carousel as a horn sounded and the conveyor belt started to churn. Brewster, 72, was ready. Wearing a name tag and a smile, she leaned forward, her hands resting on the counter, prepared to assist.

During busy times, Brewster wants to make sure travelers know she’s there, always eager to greet them with a friendly face, a joke, directions or advice.

“I like to make people smile, and I like to visit with people to find out where they’re from,” Brewster said. “A lot of times you’ll hear a story of what’s going on with them, and that’s very interesting to me.”

Brewster is part of a team of Travelers Aid volunteers, who staff two information booths inside Will Rogers World Airport, one on the ticket counter level and the other on the baggage claim level.

The Travelers Aid airport program, which started in 1973, is operated by Upward Transitions, a nonprofit organization that seeks to help those who are homeless or on the verge of becoming homeless.

Since 1986, the airport program has been funded by the Oklahoma City Airport Trust, said Megan Chapman, the Travelers Aid Volunteer Coordinator.

Volunteers assist the traveling public in a variety of ways. They answer questions about airport services, provide directions and information, direct military personnel and serve as ambassadors of the city. The volunteers also link travelers in need to emergency social services at Upward Transitions, which can provide assistance to stranded travelers.

Currently, a dedicated group of 54 volunteers keep the information booths staffed 365 days a year, The Oklahoman (https://bit.ly/2kW8pTF ) reported. Additional volunteers are being sought, Chapman said. Since July, the volunteers have served more than 43,600 airport visitors, Chapman said.

Many of the Travelers Aid volunteers are retired seniors, but the volunteers also include stay-at-home moms, professionals, groups of friends and couples.

For nearly 30 years, on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, volunteers from the Temple B’nai Israel have staffed the information booths so volunteers who celebrate the holiday don’t have to work.

Chapman started as a program volunteer before being hired as the volunteer coordinator. She still works a regular shift at the airport and fills in as needed.

Chapman had an aviation background from her time serving in the U.S. Navy, and she was looking for a way to stay involved in the field after she left the military.

“Getting to know the volunteers now as their coordinator, they’ve really become family,” she said.

Volunteers go through a background check and an interview, followed by several training sessions.

Most volunteers work on their own, but some couples and friends choose to work shifts together. Children can work with an adult as long as they are at least 14 years old, Chapman said. Volunteers typically work four-hour shifts.

“It’s a great way to meet people and solve problems,” Chapman said.

Brewster, a Mustang resident who worked as a registered nurse for 38 years, started volunteering with the Travelers Aid program about 11 years ago after she retired for the second time. The first time she retired, she said, she didn’t do much and she became depressed, so she decided to go back to work. The second time around, she knew she needed to find ways to keep busy.

She works an airport shift every Wednesday except the fourth Wednesday of the month.

Last week, as travelers milled around waiting to collect their bags, Lori Roux, 53, a documentary filmmaker from Jackson, Wyoming, wandered over to the information desk to inquire about the car rental facility.

“How far is the walk?” she wanted to know.

A mile away, Brewster informed her, noting that a free shuttle was available. Roux, a first-time Oklahoma City visitor traveling with a “boatload of gear,” appreciated the assistance.

“It’s really nice to just be able to walk up to somebody and ask them and have them actually know the answer,” she said. “I do a lot of traveling and people just kind of point and grunt, and that wasn’t the case here. It was nice to have a face-to-face encounter with someone who was very helpful.”

Seconds after Roux walked away, the phone rang.

“Will Rogers World Airport, this is Miriam,” Brewster answered. “How may I help you?”

The caller wanted to know if the airport had van service that could pick her in Norman. Brewster told her no, but gave the woman phone numbers for some taxi and shuttle services.

By the end of her shift at 2 p.m., Brewster had assisted 37 travelers, one of the lowest numbers she’s had in a while. Even on slow days, Brewster finds people to talk to.

“I grab people whether they want to talk to me or not,” she said, laughing.

‘A little bit of everything’

The most common inquiries involve restroom and car rental locations.

“From there on you get a little bit of everything,” Brewster said, from the serious to the strange.

One man rode his bicycle to the airport and asked Chapman if she could exchange what he claimed was historic Mexican currency for cash. The man said his name was Reymundo, and he asked Chapman if she knew what ‘rey’ meant in Spanish.

“I said, yes, ‘king,’ ” Chapman recalled, laughing at the memory of the encounter. “He said, ‘Do you know what ‘mundo’ means?’ and I said, ‘Yes, the world.’ He goes, ‘Now you know who I am. Don’t tell anyone.’ And then he just walked away.”

Brewster once met a man who told her he was Will Rogers’ great-nephew. He signed a piece of paper for her, which she keeps tucked inside a Will Rogers book at home.

Both booths open at 10 a.m. Upstairs stays open until 6 p.m., the lower level until 10 p.m.

“Everybody passing through this airport has a story,” Chapman said. “We get to hear a lot of them.”

Volunteers also are able to connect stranded travelers with resources.

Recently, a woman in her early 20s stopped at the information booth upstairs looking for a Western Union office. The volunteer could tell the woman was distraught and contacted Chapman, who was working downstairs.

Chapman learned that the woman had flown to Oklahoma from Massachusetts to be with her boyfriend, but the relationship didn’t work out. The woman’s boyfriend dropped her off at the airport with her belongings in trash bags.

The woman had no money and no luggage. Her mom bought her a plane ticket home, and Upward Transitions donated a luggage set, helped the woman pack and paid for her baggage fees, Chapman said.

Brewster said her most heartbreaking encounter involved a woman who had traveled from Colorado to Oklahoma to pursue a job opportunity that turned out to be a hoax. Chapman suspects the woman might have been targeted for a human trafficking scheme.

After meeting with an interviewer, the person dropped the woman off at the airport and told her there was a plane ticket booked in her name. There wasn’t. The woman wound up spending a couple of days at the airport before she made contact with Brewster, who notified Chapman.

The woman was embarrassed, but eventually opened up to Chapman. Unemployed for about six months and trying to get out of a tumultuous living situation, she’d responded to an advertisement she had seen in Colorado.

“She was looking for a way out and she thought this might be it, and it didn’t pan out that way, unfortunately,” Chapman said.

Together, they contacted a friend in Colorado to make sure the woman would have a safe place to stay when she returned. Upward Transitions can’t send a stranded or homeless client to another situation in which the person will be stranded or homeless, Chapman said.

Using emergency social service funds from the Oklahoma City Airport Trust and a pledge from a local church, Upward Transitions bought the woman a ride home on Greyhound, which provides the agency discounted bus tickets.

“One of our missions is to empower stranded travelers, empower the homeless community,” Chapman said. “We want to respect their dignity at the same time as providing them assistance. Sometimes it takes building a relationship with your client, building up a little bit of trust.”

___

Information from: The Oklahoman, https://www.newsok.com

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide