TAMPA — A lot has changed at Tampa International Airport since retiree Marie Lou Corristan started working there.
Flights to Cuba. Over $1 billion in renovations. Post-9/11 security upgrades and a dramatic shift in how the entire airline industry operates.
She's seen it all.
For the last 35 years, Corristan has volunteered at Travelers Aid — a help desk in the airport's main terminal — offering assistance to stressed out passengers.
Encounters at Travelers Aid range in seriousness. Sometimes a kid just needs a snack. Other times, there's a life-threatening medical emergency.
Which is why Corristan, 88, was honored last week by Crisis Center of Tampa Bay CEO Clara Reynolds during a ceremony at the airport. Corristan has dealt with a lot of people over the years.
"(Passengers) don't see us as law enforcement. They see us as ambassadors," Reynolds said recently of Travelers Aid volunteers like Corristan.
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Travelers Aid started operating out of Hillsborough County in 1924 and out of the airport decades after that, Reynolds said. The Crisis Center began running it in 1997. AAA also sponsors the desk. There are about 35 volunteers on staff, including Corristan. They distribute food, diapers and hygiene products to travelers in need. They also give visitors information about the airport and the city of Tampa.
Reynolds said Travelers Aid is an important asset for the Crisis Center, which runs suicide prevention programs, phone lines for trauma support and other mental health initiatives. Airports are high-stress environments. Having someone on hand at Travelers Aid, to offer a calming word or to help a person in need is a huge plus, Reynolds said.
Case in point: Reynolds was at Travelers Aid in April when she said a man, pale and visibly sweating, kept looking at the desk. "Ladies, I'm not feeling good," he said. The staff went to talk with him. Then they realized he was having a heart attack. (The man was rushed to the hospital. In some situations, Travelers Aid redirects passengers to the police or the Crisis Center.)
The encounters aren't always that frightening. Corristan spends a lot of her time at Travelers Aid giving people directions.
"Normally we have a great day, we don't have a hassle," Corristan said.
The job can take an odd turn, though.
Several years ago, a woman "off her medication" at the airport kept staring at a decorative bird hanging from the ceiling, Corristan said. The woman wanted to jump up and grab it. Travelers Aid didn't know what to do. A helpful doctor waiting for his flight sat beside the woman and calmed her down.
Reynolds said a grandmother traveling to Arizona for a family visit once frantically approached Travelers Aid because she couldn't bring her fish on the plane. Post-9/11 federal flight rules prohibit liquids in containers larger than 3.4 ounces. The fish had apparently surpassed that limit. Travelers Aid agreed to keep the fish for the grandmother during her trip.
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Times are different at the airport now. In the old days, Corristan could park in a garage at the Tampa Airport Marriott, she said. Now, she parks off Hillsborough Avenue and buses to the terminal. It's all so much bigger. It's more crowded.
According to the Crisis Center, Travelers Aid served 21,000 people in 2018. The desk is a well-known destination "everyday people" still stumble upon by chance, Corristan said. And that's what she likes about it. That's why Corristan wants to keep working there until she can no longer drive. It's always interesting.
"We say hello to everybody who goes by," Corristan said.
Travelers Aid at Tampa International Airport can be reached at (813) 870-8797. The help desk is open seven days a week. Its hours are typically about 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. said Crisis Center of Tampa Bay CEO Clara Reynolds.
Contact Sam Ogozalek at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3430. Follow @SamOgozalek.