Cindy Welsh has only one regret about the afternoon she spent at Dulles International Airport entertaining 12 American children who had just spent a month of captivity in Iraq and Kuwait: She didn't bring a pair of dancing shoes.

The Leesburg resident and assistant director of Loudoun County Parks and Recreation did bring toys, games, books, stickers, balloons and soap bubbles to greet the children, who arrived at Dulles on Sept. 3. But they couldn't make up for the loss suffered by one little girl.

"She had to leave her dancing shoes back in Kuwait," Welsh said. "She had seen fires set, homes broken into and that was what she said over and over: 'I lost my dancing shoes.' I felt, if we had only known . . . . "

Welsh, who was responsible for caring for the children of former hostages while their parents went through U.S. Customs and State Department briefings, is one of dozens of area residents who have played a largely unseen but crucial role in assisting former hostages. Because of their jobs in state and local social service agencies or their membership in such organizations as the Red Cross, these residents have been called on to provide food, shelter, counseling, security or sometimes just a listening ear in situations they would have never imagined.

"You see these things on TV and they seem so far away," said Marjorie Bennett, an administrative assistant in the Anne Arundel County Department of Social Services who welcomed refugees at Baltimore-Washington International Airport on Sept. 9, 15 and 16. "Now I realize the impact on lives . . . . I'm being given the opportunity to hear stories from these families that I am then passing on to my children and friends."

Bennett and her assistant, Rhoda Northcutt, helped some refugees with travel arrangements and checked others into hotels and shelters. They even took some foreigners with ties to the United States to the Immigration and Naturalization Service so they could obtain permission to work. They saw some families, who had specific destinations, only for a few hours, but spent four days with others who were stranded. They became attached to many, they said.

"I hope that they call me up a year or two from now or even six months, and let me know how they are," said Bennett, an Annapolis resident and mother of five.

The most recent group of hostages returned to Raleigh, N.C., two weeks ago. No other trips have been announced.

Hostages who have returned to Dulles Airport were helped by residents of Loudoun and Fairfax counties. At BWI, residents of Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties responded.

In Virginia, services are coordinated by Loudoun County. In Maryland, they are coordinated by the Maryland Emergency Management Agency with help from localities. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reimburses state and local governments, which have paid for former hostages' temporary housing, travel expenses and clothing. Other items, particularly food, diapers and blankets, are donated by the Red Cross.

"We feed them doughnuts and, boy, do they eat doughnuts," said Tom Berezoski, a Loudoun Red Cross volunteer.

Berezoski said Red Cross units all over the metropolitan area are put on alert when freed hostages are expected at a local airport. "If we had to have 500 blankets, if we had to have 5,000 cots, they would be there . . . . We could put 2,000 {volunteers} there if necessary."

Berezoski and other local residents said the chance to help returning hostages was a privilege they won't forget. They said they felt a range of emotions, often resulting in tears.

"Just to be there when they came home, although you don't know who they are, you don't know what their names are, you don't know what their jobs are . . . it felt good," said Byron Andrews, chief of the Sterling Volunteer Rescue Squad. Andrews was among rescue personnel on hand in case the former hostages were injured or extremely fatigued.

"It was very emotional. I was really torn by the fact that these women were coming back alone with these kids," said Carmen Nazario, director of the Loudoun Department of Social Services.

Welsh said she befriended many families, including the little girl who had lost her dancing shoes and another, about 4 years old, who kept insisting that she "wanted to go to America."

"We assured her she was in America," Welsh said. "She talked about the fires that she saw and the soldiers and the guns . . . . We all cried when they departed. They wanted me to go home with them."

Residents also said they felt a heightened sense of responsibility in their jobs.

"It was a little unnerving," said Lt. Terry McCracken, one of several members of the Loudoun County Sheriff's Department who provided security for former hostages and Jesse L. Jackson, who accompanied them home Sept. 3. "I've done things similar to it, but nothing of that magnitude."

Berezoski, of the Red Cross, said he even tried to extend kindness to Iraqi Ambassador Mohamed Mashat. Mashat greeted the former hostages at Dulles, but abruptly departed after former hostage Lloyd Culbertson told the crowd he "damn near starved to death" while being held in Kuwait.

But even before the freed hostages arrived, Berezoski thought Mashat looked uncomfortable.

"I walked over, and I gave him a Coca-Cola," Berezoski said.