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Airport chapel struggles to continue Travelers Aid after city contract ends

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PHOENIX – As a woman arrives at her connecting gate at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport, she learns by phone that the daughter who dropped her off at the airport in California has been killed in a car accident.

Holding only a ticket heading east and unable to afford the last-minute fare home, she seeks advice from a volunteer at the airport’s help desk and is directed to the Rev. Al Young at the Sky Harbor Interfaith Chaplaincy. Young calls the woman’s airline, and soon she’s heading home.

“The airport has a motto, ‘The Friendliest Airport in the U.S.,’ and we feel that we add to the airport operation,” Young said.

The chapel, which is funded by donations, ran Sky Harbor’s Travelers Aid program for seven years under a under a contract with the city. But Phoenix officials didn’t renew the contract for the fiscal year that started July 1 after deciding that airport staff and volunteers could provide the help.

A case manager the chapel hired to administer the Travelers Aid program is now on furlough, and Young said he has been trying to find new funding while helping as many people as he can himself.

The chapel’s program works with travelers who are stranded, homeless, fleeing domestic violence and facing other challenges. Someone who came to the Valley for a job that didn’t pan out may wind up with a discounted bus ticket home, for example, while someone who is homeless and not necessarily traveling through the airport may be referred to a shelter.

Providing that level of service is difficult without a case manager, Young said.

“With her no longer here, what she could do was take the extra time to really connect with shelters and keep open the lines of communication,” he said.

The city, which started a trial run of the program in 2006 and continued funding for seven years, provided about $54,000 last fiscal year.

Deborah Ostreicher, a Sky Harbor spokeswoman, said the chapel’s Travelers Aid program had expanded beyond helping stranded airport travelers.

“It didn’t make good fiscal sense for us to continue to use aviation money to fund support for people who were coming to the airport because they heard there was support here but not because they were travelers,” she said.

Ostreicher said increased staffing at the airport also makes it possible to assist stranded travelers with employees rather than a contractor.

“It didn’t make sense to spend additional finances contracting a Travelers Aid program when we have so many other resources to handle travelers in distress,” Ostreicher said. “We have volunteer navigators, staff and Phoenix police working together with airlines.”

Dave Asselin, president and CEO of Travelers Aid International, said that airport police and staff aren’t sufficient for people who may need both financial and emotional help.

“Travelers Aid societies provide that person-to-person social services aspect that you’re not going to get from airport security,” he said in a telephone interview.

The airport chapel, opened in 1987 and located in Terminal Four, is a non-denominational place for travelers and airport employees to pray and reflect.

Young said he will keep working on his own to maintain the chapel’s additional mission of helping travelers and others in need.

“I’m doing what needs to be done to keep things going,” he said.