Travelers Aid marks 100 years of putting people on the right path in Washington


Deborah Wulff, in blue blazer, talks with travelers at Reagan National Airport on Wednesday, the busiest travel day of the holiday season. (Bill O'Leary/Washington Post)
November 27, 2013

In an age of apps and text messages, some travelers still long for the personal touch.

That’s how Tristan Paige, 17, ended up at the Travelers Aid desk in Terminal B of Reagan National Airport on Wednesday, the busiest day of the holiday travel season.

He clearly was rattled.

“I haven’t been on an airplane in such a long time,” he said to volunteer Deborah Wulff. Paige had a rolling suitcase in one hand, an iPhone in the other and a tone of slight panic in his voice. “What do I do?”

Wulff knew exactly what to say.

For any seasoned traveler, navigating through airport security can be a hassle. If you're flying over the holidays, here's your essential guide on what to bring before you reach the checkpoint line. (The Washington Post)

“No problem.”

She looked up Paige’s flight details and directed him to his gate. He was early, so she suggested a few places where the teen could grab a bite to eat.

Paige smiled. Took a deep breath.

“Thank you,” he said. “I feel better.”

And that’s exactly the point of Travelers Aid International.

More than 60,000 passengers were expected to move through the gates of National Airport on Wednesday. Despite a gloomy forecast of cold temperatures and steady showers, flight delays were limited, and security lines were surprisingly brisk. But questions were plentiful.

Here at the desk on the second floor of Terminal B, one of three Travelers Aid stations at National, Wulff, in a blue blazer, and fellow volunteer Doris Schuman, in a blue vest with a Travelers Aid patch, answered them all in a calm and cool manner that seemed to put even the most nervous traveler at ease.

Bathrooms? Right down the concourse on your left. Starbucks? Upstairs near the American Airlines ticket counter. Do you have a sheet of paper I can borrow? Of course. Where’s Terminal B? Well, right here sir.

In some months, the volunteers assist as many as 35,000 people.

This is the organization’s 100th year in Washington. Although many may associate Travelers Aid desks with airports, they also are found in train stations, bus stations and other spots where travelers need help. Travelers Aid started in St. Louis in the 1860s, when stagecoaches and wagon trains were popular modes of travel, said John Paul Scherfel Jr., a spokesman for the nonprofit group. The mostly volunteer organization has grown dramatically since then, with more than 500 volunteers in the Washington region.

Some days are slow, Wulff said, but there was little time for idle chatter Wednesday. Among those who stopped by the desk were Woodbury, Tenn., residents Shannon and Franz Walkup, who were at the airport to pick up a Thanksgiving gift: Ranger, an 8-week-old German shepherd puppy.

“He’s going to be my service dog,” said Franz Walkup, an Army sergeant who was wounded in Afghanistan and is recovering at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.

Schuman helped direct the husband and wife to the spot where they could pick up their new family member.

Wulff, a housing consultant, began volunteering at the desk at National in 2010. She missed her first shift because of “Snowmageddon” (“Lots of snow, not a plow in sight,” she said). Wednesdays are her days.

Same with Schuman, a retired high school history teacher and part-time tour guide, who has been at it for 20 years.

“This is my ticket to heaven,” she joked. “I just love people and I love to talk.”

One of the highlights of Schuman’s tenure: bumping into John F. Kennedy Jr. in one of the airport’s hallways.

“He was gorgeous,” she said. “I’m telling you, movie star gorgeous.”

Wulff recalled one of her strangest encounters, which coincidentally had a Thanksgiving theme.

An anxious father went to the desk. He was headed to Chicago to see his son, who was preparing and hosting his first Thanksgiving dinner. But a critical element was missing.

“He doesn’t have the needles to truss the turkey, so I’m bringing them,” he told her. “I need to know: Can I take these through security?”

Wulff had no idea. But she did what every good Travelers Aid volunteer does: She got an answer.

“I can tell you that, yes, you can bring the needles to truss up a Thanksgiving turkey through airport security,” she said with a laugh. “But I still wonder why he didn’t just tell his son to go to the store?”

Lori Aratani writes about how people live, work and play in the D.C. region for The Post’s Transportation and Development team.
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