By Cheryl Albiez, Media Relations Staff
At the age of 92, U.S. Army veteran Mel Manheimer no longer serves his country on active duty. But service is still an essential part of his life, as the last nine years as a volunteer for Travelers Aid assisting passengers in need at John F. Kennedy International Airport will attest.
“Volunteering [at the airport] adds years to your life. You can’t get a better position,” he said.
The same goes for Tony Scimeca, who retired after 45 years as an aircraft mechanic for TWA but couldn’t get the airport environment out of his blood. He, too, is a volunteer working with Travelers Aid at JFK, assisting global and domestic travelers who need help finding transportation or information on their flight, or buying coffee and a muffin for a stranded passenger.
“I get great satisfaction hearing someone say ’thank you.’ That’s something you don’t get staying at home watching T.V.!” he said.
Nearly 150 volunteers staff JFK and Newark Liberty International Airport are part of Travelers Aid International, exemplifying the spirit of giving, and helping the Port Authority meet its commitment to provide customer-centric initiatives that improve the travel experience. Volunteers come from various backgrounds, including retired airport and aviation veterans such as former Newark Liberty General Manager Richard Heslin.
Traveling through the two international airports, a warm smile from someone in the organization’s distinctive blue blazer can provide an unexpected uplift for travelers in need of guidance or reassurance. These friendly faces help make an often difficult travel experience much easier. At LaGuardia Airport, volunteers work with Big Apple Greeter to assist customers.
For all volunteers, the payment is hugs, smiles and heartfelt thanks. Their concern for the individual traveler is heartfelt, too.
“When someone in flip flops and an oversized backpack approaches me looking for transportation to New York, I often ask what kind of accommodations they are looking for and provide them with the most economical means of getting there,” said Michael Guarnaccio, a retired HR specialist of 38 years who volunteers at Newark Liberty. “I even carry a change purse for the $1.60 fare to help them get on the NJ Transit bus to Penn Station.”
Guarnaccio has spent most of his life volunteering: at his church, at senior housing, his children’s baseball team, for a crisis communications hotline and – for the last four years – at Newark Liberty. “Helping people gives me chills,” he said. “I just love being around and helping others.”
For some volunteers, knowing when travelers require assistance is almost intuitive. Tyrone Laval has been with the program for six years. An avid traveler, volunteering his time at the airport seemed like the perfect fit for him.
“When I approach someone asking if they need assistance, they often ask ‘how do you know I need help?’” Laval said with a smile. “I’ve been a teacher for 40 years, I recognize the blank stare.” For Laval, it’s a rewarding experience that has influenced others in his life to do well, including friends from Baltimore who now volunteer services at their airport.
Kayoung Song joined the Travelers Aid program as an exchange student from South Korea, through the government’s Work English Study Travel (WEST) program. Song, who has an infectious smile, said that “English is not my first language, and I like meeting people who speak different languages and have different accents.”
“I am proud to be one of the first people they see when they arrive here,” she said. “They are not familiar with the area and I understand their situation, so I do my best to find a solution for them.”
Interested in volunteering at JFK or Newark Liberty?
Volunteers are at the heart of Travelers Aid’s work at airports, bus and train stations. Last year, nearly 2,100 Travelers Aid volunteers assisted more than 9 million people at 24 transportation centers on 3 continents.
To volunteer or for additional information, please call Travelers Aid JFK at (718) 656-4870 or Travelers Aid Newark at (973) 623-5052.
Or to become a volunteer with Big Apple Greeter at LaGuardia Airport, visit https://bigapplegreeter.org/volunteer/ or call 212-669-7308