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The Guardian Angels of LAX


In a small classroom at Los Angeles International Airport, Frances Sotcher is role-playing. She is a foreign tourist, seeking help in some incomprehensible language.

No problem for her students. They are Travelers Aid volunteers, and after weeks of schooling they know their Ps and Qs, as well as their AZ (Alitalia), PL (Aero Peru) and TBIT (Tom Bradley International Terminal).

If she were a real traveler in distress, they tell her, they'd simply pull out a reference sheet and have her point to her native tongue, then connect her to an AT&T language line operator who speaks one of 140 tongues from Azerbaijani to Waray-Waray.

Sotcher, director of volunteers for the Travelers Aid Society of Los Angeles, is well-pleased. An exceptional class. Of 31 who started, 29 will finish and join the 300 volunteers who staff nine booths at LAX daily from early morning until late evening.

Travelers who seek help--more than 700,000 did in 1995--know them by their red jackets. What's not so well-known is that they undergo 21 hours of rigorous training over seven weeks and serve a six-month internship before earning their badges.

"We have a fair attrition rate, and we expect it," says Sotcher, "but if they hang in there, they usually stay with us awhile."

Curiosity impelled us to sit in as this class journeyed through a world of bus schedules, customs queries and car rentals. Early on, Ed West, a lead volunteer and trainer, sets the tone. The forbidden words: "I don't know." A TA volunteer will find out.

Someone's grandmother is due in from Cincinnati, but forgot to mention the airline? No problem. A tourist has six hours to kill and no idea of where to go? "You can kind of size them up," says trainer Beverly Sumetz--decide whether they'd be wowed by the Hollywood Wax Museum or the Huntington Library.

Thumbing through loose-leaf notebooks and Rolodexes, volunteers learn which airlines use which gates, how to decipher ticket codes and baggage-tag shorthand. They learn what to do in medical emergencies, how to weed out the con artists. And they learn that they must never accept a weapon for safekeeping or stash packages or luggage.

The reward for those who finish: a commitment to staff a booth three or four hours a week.

So why have these people signed on? When Fred Kessler had his pocket picked while on business in New York by a thief who slashed his clothing, "a Travelers Aid volunteer assisted me while I held my pants together." Besides, his grandmother was a TA volunteer.

Tricia Hepp, who works for a Japanese-owned insurance company, sees it as a chance to make friends in other countries. Says Sotcher, TA clients may say, "If you're ever in Hong Kong, stop for lunch . . . and our volunteers do."

Trainees learn that a TA volunteer never plays favorites. As trainer John Harrison emphasizes, "Just because you like some hotel, that's not the one you refer them to. . . . You do not get a star for that." And, he adds, don't assume anything about travelers by their appearance. Anybody can look disheveled after a 14-hour flight. "They'll be insulted if you refer them to a $39.50 room and they're thinking $120."

It goes without saying that volunteers don't accept tips, but there's a donation box at each booth for those wishing to say thank you.

Some travelers, however, may be tired, anxious and downright nasty. Volunteers are told, "Keep calm. . . . Just don't get hostile." "Pleasant," "professional" and "polite" are the key words here. A TA volunteer didn't scoff when a woman asked directions to L.A. County Men's Central Jail to deliver a letter to O.J.

One class session is devoted to casework--what to do for the traveler who's stranded, broke or in trouble. "Our primary mission," says Sotcher, is "to help people return home." If that appears impossible, TA social worker Danielle Edwards may be asked to hook the person up with a local resource, a battered-women's shelter or the traveler's country's consulate.

Volunteers are cautioned: "Don't hand out money, no matter how sobbish the story is." Airports attract the rootless, the runaways and the addicts, and are also a magnet for con artists. (Pink TA Rolodex cards alert volunteers to known cheaters.)

Travelers Aid is funded by federal and state grants, United Way and private donations and, Sotcher reminds volunteers, "We're not a loan agency or a bank." But the truly needy traveler can get a voucher for $4.50 for the LAX employee cafeteria.

Another cardinal rule for volunteers reflects the times. "If anyone threatens you," says Sotcher, "and we've had this happen, get out of the booth and call the police. You are not there to be Sir Galahad."

The unexpected is the norm. A woman coming from India was so traumatized by having her Iranian husband seized during a stopover in Tehran that, on reaching LAX, she hid under a counter and had to be lured out to greet her daughter.

A volunteer may have to try to help a motorist who can't remember where he parked his car or discourage a teenage girl bent on hitchhiking--or diplomatically intercede when a stranger offers that girl a lift.

On our last visit to LAX, Fred Kessler is interning at Terminal 2. This night, he and Ed West have aided a sailor bumped from an overbooked flight to Japan and also a Mexican merchant seaman stood up by the ship's agent who was to have driven him to San Pedro.

And, of course, they'd been asked the two questions perhaps most commonly posed to Travelers Aid volunteers: Do you have change? Where's the bathroom?

* This weekly column chronicles the people and small moments that define life in Southern California. Reader suggestions are welcome.

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