The Joy of Volunteering at the 5th Busiest Airport on the Planet

Volunteering at LAX for Special Olympics this year. Here I am with the large group of Chinese folks ready to greet their delegation. The sign says: "Welcome Chinese Athletes."

It was September of 2012. After binging on some Rick Steves episodes, I was inspired and planned a trip to Europe. I'd be traveling by myself this time -- something I wasn't used to except on business trips -- but this was a new and exciting adventure and I was looking forward to a break from working. Little did I know as I embarked on the journey that I would soon satiate my yearning to being immersed in different cultures through volunteering in an airport -- and that it would become the most fulfilling part of my life.

I returned from a wonderful trip and all I wanted to do was go back, but soon it would be winter in Northern Europe and my obligations at home meant I wouldn't go back in the near future. And so I was called to find a way here in Southern California to live in that energy that I experienced while traveling. I was inspired to explore two possibilities:

  • The first option was along Ocean Avenue in Santa Monica. There is a kiosk near Palisades Park providing information to visitors. I thought I could volunteer there to be in the energy of travelers, but I quickly discovered that they are staffed by city employees. Strike-out option one of two.
  • My second inspiration was to seek volunteer opportunities at the Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), though I had no idea if such a thing even existed. Within one minute of searching online, I landed on a website for the Volunteer Information Professionals (VIP) program at LAX. I read the description and thought in disbelief, "This program was designed for me!"
  • Without hesitation, I wrote an email to the director of volunteers for the program and inquired about opportunities to join VIP. The next day, I drove to LAX and walked through the entire airport to locate and observe in action the information booths. As an experienced traveler, I had never noticed them before and I discovered that every terminal has one. Early the next morning I received a response to my email, with an invitation to join the next training class -- scheduled to begin in three weeks. I found the timing of all of this so synchronous since classes don't happen frequently. I committed to the twenty hours of classroom training over five weeks. During the training I knew that the place I wanted to serve at LAX was the Tom Bradley International Terminal. The only shift that fit with my work schedule was on Sunday evenings, and as luck would have it, that shift was available!

    After my first six weeks in the information booth, I was having so much fun, and was eager to add a second volunteer shift. Through careful scrutiny of the time sheets, I found an opening on Fridays. I added that shift and continue to serve two shifts a week. The executives of the University of Santa Monica where I work have been very supportive of me and this project. And they were flexible as I added the second Friday shift. It's never been a conflict; it's actually been graceful.

    About a year into volunteering, the information booth at the Tom Bradley International Arrivals Terminal was relocated. It used to be one of the first things travelers encountered after exiting customs but was moved to a farther, less conspicuous location. While travelers can still find us, the volume was reduced substantially which I found frustrating since I love interactions with travelers. So I further researched the other terminals at LAX to find one with a high volume of travelers. I requested to move my Sunday shift to Terminal Four, and again, as luck would have it, the time slot happened to be open.

    The flow at Tom Bradley is different from the flow at Terminal Four:

    • I find the International Terminal to be thrilling! There are people coming from all over the planet. LAX is the fifth busiest airport in the world based on the number of passengers that travel through it (according to 2014 data from Airports Council International). Here, people come up to me speaking so many different languages. Many speak English ranging from little to none, and it's the only language I speak. But I can communicate with anyone! Visitors will show me a document with their next flight, or hotel, or tour, and I guide and point and direct them to where they need to go without relying on words. By using gestures and hand signals, I help them successfully reach their destinations -- amazing!
  • The flow at the domestic terminals is a bit different. It tends to be faster paced because there is no delay through the immigration and customs process. And many people arrive to LAX to connect with international flights. There are many details that I know through my experience working at Tom Bradley. For instance, if travelers ask about their connection to Cathay Pacific, I know that those flights only go to Hong Kong from LAX, so I will give them directions and as I wave goodbye to them, say, "Have a great trip to Hong Kong!" That brings them a smile. And that's what I love most about my job!
  • For me, the volunteer position goes beyond giving fast, clear, accurate information. What I love is the caring that comes through me. The way I welcome them. The joyfulness. That is what people thank and acknowledge me for.

    Observers often tell me that I am so good at my job and that I must love it. I say to them, "I'll tell you a secret: this isn't my job -- I do this as a volunteer." I get a wide range of responses. Many people thank me. Some people I share this with who also volunteer understand what I am talking about. Others can't believe it and stand there stunned. Those who aren't familiar with the concept of volunteering don't really seem to catch the spirit -- having grown up in a society which is so focused on making money. So I illuminate them about volunteering -- having evolved to a place where my life is all about service.

    Volunteering is the most fulfilling part of my life -- and I have a very good life! I have a great job, loving friends, and I'm financially stable. At the end of every shift, I leave the terminals with a high -- filled with gratitude for being able to help others.

    This has been an intriguing journey for me. Who knew that serving all these people over the course of three years, and more than 1,000 hours of volunteering, would end up giving me so much more than I could ever give to them?

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