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First Stop: Travelers Aid

Union Station Help Desk Assists D.C. Visitors and Others in Need

Tucked amid the hustle and bustle of the arrivals gate for Amtrak passengers, the Travelers Aid desk at Union Station may be hard to spot. But for the weary, downtrodden, lost and stranded who use the nonprofit service, it is invaluable.

Martha Morris, director of development for Travelers Aid, said the organization is the first stop for many people visiting Washington, D.C.

“We’re in some ways a gateway for visitors to our nation’s capital,” Morris said. “So when people get off the train at Union Station, they often come right to Travelers Aid.”

The service, part of a nationwide social services network, hands out “thousands of brochures on all sorts of sightseeing,” Morris said, and also helps tourists get directions, use the Metro and navigate through Union Station.

But beyond travel tips, Travelers Aid also offers social services such as assistance in family crises and protective travel services for people in need of help.

In the past year, the three Travelers Aid locations (Union Station as well as Dulles International and Ronald Reagan Washington National airports) gave assistance to more than 970,000 travelers and saw a 15 percent increase in the amount of social services provided.

The humanitarian role of Travelers Aid is where Morris believes the services of the organization stand out. [IMGCAP(1)]

“The other part of what we do is the social service,” Morris said. “That, I think, is where we are unique … I don’t think there’s any other agency in Washington that does that. And we don’t charge, it’s a free service and we do provide professional casework management to those who need it.”

Morris attributes the increase in social work cases to a variety of reasons.

“There’s three trends that we’re seeing,” Morris explained. “One is number of mental illness cases, the second one is women who are victims of domestic violence, and the third one is young men who have come to Washington to get a job and they might get a job, or they don’t get one, but even if they do, they can’t find a place to live that’s affordable. That’s a huge problem here in Washington.”

Willie Ringold, director of social services for Travelers Aid, believes the organization prevents an increase in citywide vagrancy.

“We prevent homelessness, I think, because we are able to provide some assistance to a lot of individuals, and I think we are the only one in the city that is providing a transportation need,” Ringold said. “We can provide transportation back to a city therefore preventing these people from becoming homeless and becoming a drain on the other services here in the city.”

Any potential client of Travelers Aid must meet a number of criteria to receive aid; for instance, the individual cannot have been stranded in the city for longer than six months, and anyone who is seeking transportation assistance must be able to prove that there will be someone who can meet them at their destination.

Funding for Travelers Aid services comes from a number of sources, including contracts with the Metropolitan Airport Authority, grant donations from several Washington-based private foundations and private donors. Travelers Aid also has an agreement through Greyhound Lines and receives a discount on the bus vouchers the program distributes.

Still, Travelers Aid could not operate without the large amount of volunteers who dedicate their time to the three D.C. locations.

“They’re our lifeblood,” Morris said. “We would not be able to do what we do without them. If you look at the ratio of staff to volunteers in the Washington area you’ll quickly see why. We have 11 staff people and we have 430 volunteers. At the two airports and at Union Station, it’s a very cost-efficient way of operating.”

The volunteers at Travelers Aid are, according to Morris, not only dedicated, but also well-traveled, bilingual and very intelligent.

Pat Flanigan has been volunteering for the organization since she left her job as a public health nurse 10 years ago, and she now works at both the Reagan airport and Union Station locations. The most interesting and challenging aspect of her work, Flanigan said, is “just getting to meet different types of people who come through there. We have people from all over the world who come through Union Station, especially.”

Flanigan, whose husband, Jim, is a fellow volunteer, said she believes that through volunteer experience, “you meet some wonderful fellow volunteers. They’re wonderful people, and I think they’re all there because they have some desire to assist people. Otherwise they’d find something else to do. There’s so many things you can volunteer for in this city. But this one is fun. I think that’s why most of us come back. It’s fun to meet the people … and sometimes it’s a real challenge to help.”

The organization and its volunteers are focused on meeting the changing needs of the District and the people it serves.

“The goal is that the client has to be better off as a result of what we do for them,” Morris said. “That’s the goal. And that’s basic social service, you’re always trying to get someone in a better situation.”

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