(July 24, 2013) - Gretchen and Jack Fiery were nearing the end of their four-and-a-half hour shift at their Tampa International Airport information booth and they had already helped 104 passengers for the day. A mother who needed a ride for her and her child, a woman who couldn’t find her baggage carousel, a man asking about a hotel shuttle – all were cheerfully pointed in the right directions by the friendly married couple.
“This is just a fun place to be,” Gretchen Fiery said. “Jack has always been fascinated with aviation and planes, and we know the area so well.”
The Fierys are just two of Tampa International Airport’s 130-plus Volunteer Ambassadors and among the 80-plus who have stayed with the program since it began one year ago this month. The program is recognizing the volunteers’ one-year anniversary with a special reception at the Marriott ballroom this Friday, and it has quite a bit to celebrate.
In just their first year, the Volunteer Ambassadors helped nearly 170,000 visitors as they worked 22,000 service hours.
“We were trying for 10,000 hours our first year,” said Scott Ericson, who oversees the Volunteers Ambassador program. “It really exceeded our expectations, and the people who volunteer really seem to like it.”
The Guest Services Department developed the program and put about 90 volunteers to work just in time for the Republican National Convention visitors to arrive.
The program offers several perks to its volunteers, such as free parking, uniform shirts and occasional trips to popular destinations such as the Dali Museum or Tarpon Springs so they can experience these places for themselves. But the most gratifying reward, many volunteers say, may be the satisfaction of giving help and answers to those who have just arrived to Tampa for the first time.
“We answer questions that, if people walked in and just spent a few minutes looking around, they’d probably find the answers themselves,” said Gary Dassatti, who retired from the food industry a few years ago and has been a volunteer in the Southwest baggage claim area since August 2012. “But we make it much easier on them.”
To some, that little bit of help can make all the difference between a good experience and a frustrating one.
Ericson pulled from his desk a copy of a note from a recent visitor, who spent money on postage to send her comment card all the way from Chile.
“I do not know her name, she is a lady with short white hair,” the note begins. “We are very grateful to her. She offered and we used her cell phone to contact our family at the airport.”
Ericson passes such comments along to Vice President of Operations John Tiliacos, and Tiliacos sends letters of thanks to volunteers that make special impressions on guests.
The volunteers appreciate the kudos, but most will say they simply enjoy the weekly interactions with people from all over the world.
“It’s an interesting place and you meet lots of interesting people,” said 78-year-old John Babbitt, who worked at the airport for cruise lines for several years before becoming a Volunteer Ambassador. “I’ve volunteered at hospitals but this is definitely more positive and upbeat.”
Tampa International Airport is always accepting Volunteer Ambassador applications, especially during busier winter months, and recently opened the program to high school students looking to get community service hours for scholarships.