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"Airport volunteers offer friendly faces, Ziplocs"

Monday, January 22, 2007

Airport volunteers offer friendly faces, Ziplocs 
The Associated Press

DURHAM, N.C. (AP) - These days, happiness at the airport is a free Ziploc
bag in a pinch.

You've made it to the terminal, but not with much time to spare. And you've
managed to bring your luggage with you but haven't handled those troublesome
liquids and gels properly, and you darn sure haven't brought any plastic
bags that you'll need to comply with the rule that carryon toiletries must
be in a quart-sized clear bag.

At Raleigh-Durham International, that's where people like Hiram Fuller come
in. Fuller's got a stack of plastic, resealable bags behind the volunteer
counter in the A Terminal.

Ordinarily that might not be such a big deal. It's not like the guy is
giving you a free plane ticket or bumping you to first class.

But for a stressed or confused traveler, it's one of the small but
meaningful things volunteers at RDU do that can keep the traveler's
experience on a positive arc.

"If you can just help them a little bit, that's what I love about it," said
Fuller, 72, retired after 28 years in the U.S. Air Force.

Sometimes the volunteers are just conduits for the good deeds of others.
Fuller mentioned the time a woman took off her rings in the bathroom to wash
her hands, then realized in a panic that she'd left the rings on the sink.
But another traveler had turned in the rings to the volunteer desk.

"You Southern people are so nice!" exclaimed the ring-owner when she got
them back.

Fuller, an Arkansas native, drives to the airport from his home in Wake
Forest about three days a week and puts in four to six hours in the
"Volunteer Ambassador" program.

He's one of some 33 current volunteers in the program who come from various
backgrounds and range in age from 16 to 84, said volunteer coordinator
Carmen Watson.

As Watson puts it, they are an "extra set of eyes and ears" for the airport.
They're roving problem-solvers in red vests, walking lists of answers to the
most frequently asked questions, from the location of the baggage-claim
office to the location of the nearest restroom.

Fuller came in for his shift on a recent Monday just before lunch, and he'd
already had two questions from travelers just going from his car to the
terminal. Once stationed at the volunteer desk in the A Terminal, he got two
requests for plastic bags within a couple of minutes.

Robert and Gloria Bailey of Durham ran into toiletry trouble at the
checkpoint and were glad for one of the bags so they could head on to
Indiana. They weren't really in a mood to chat, considering they still had
to run the X-ray gantlet, but clearly they were grateful for Fuller's help.

Thena Alexander of Fayetteville stopped to check the status of her son's
flight, and Fuller told her it was on the way but 45 minutes late, after
checking a computer at the volunteer desk. Again, not good news for the
family member outside locked in a circling pattern in the family's car, but
at least Alexander got some up-to-date flight information.

Along with airport staffers, RDU police officers and airline employees,
Fuller and Pam Brennan were the two volunteers on duty around lunchtime on a
slow day at RDU.

When volunteers aren't at the information desks, they spend time walking the
concourses, answering questions and watching out for travelers with that
"deer-in-the-headlights" look, trying to find their gate, their luggage or
the rental car desk.

The volunteers get security badges that allow them some access in the
airport that passengers don't have, but first they go through interviews,
background and reference checks and fingerprinting, Watson said.

They have to study up on basic facts about the airport, and along with
helping travelers, getting to know the other users of the airport - such as
the people working in the restaurants and shops - also is part of the job.

The idea is that with strong networks of people throughout the airport, the
volunteers can more easily see problems and help get things done to solve
them, Watson said.

Watson, who has been at the airport about 10 years, speaks fondly of her
charges, both the current volunteers and those who've come and gone. She
remembered one volunteer, a student at North Carolina State University, who
used quick thinking to help a large contingent of soldiers who landed at the
airport one evening, before the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

The airport restaurants were about to close, and the soldiers still had a
couple of more hours of in transit to military bases in North Carolina. The
volunteer called upstairs to one of the restaurants, then started taking
food orders from the soldiers and making runs to the restaurant, eventually
coordinating the feeding of about 300 soldiers, Watson said.

It was one of the volunteers, Jim Van Strien, who led the effort to open a
USO center at the airport for military personnel. Watson described Fuller as
equally committed and inventive.

"Let me tell you about this man," she said. "He will do anything. If he sees
something that needs to be done, he will do it. He's priceless."

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