$72,000 worth of mixing government and religion at Sky
Wings and a prayer: Airport minister, social worker
quietly help troubled travelers
The Arizona Republic
Dec. 27, 2007 12:00 AM
Tucked away from the traffic jams, long lines and
scurrying travelers at Phoenix Sky Harbor
International Airport is a nondescript office that
serves as a safety net for passengers.
Those who end up here are generally in distress. They
have deeper concerns than a missed flight or errant
luggage. The airport and airlines employ hundreds to
deal with those common problems.
The people in this hard-to-find place deal with
dilemmas one wouldn't think would reach the airport.
Social problems like hunger, poverty and domestic
It is here where Rebecca Martin serves as social
worker and the Rev. Al Young serves as minister to a
"Just having a calm voice," Martin says, advising how
she calms harried passengers. "Letting people know you
understand how they feel helps."
Of the 41.4 million passengers who go through Sky
Harbor each year, according to the city, only a tiny
sliver, 200 to 300, reach Martin and Young's office
tucked behind a bank of elevators in Terminal 4.
"When they're out of options, when they don't have a
place to send a person, they're sending them to us,"
On one recent morning, the two dealt with a homeless
veteran, a family of four stranded without cash and a
young man who walked into the office claiming hunger
"I can't have bad days," Martin said, "I have to stay
positive. When people come to you, they need something
from you, and I have to give back."
Martin, hired in August, is the first full-time staff
person devoted to passengers in distress at Sky
Before, problems were mainly handled through Young and
a volunteer chaplain.
When Young started the Sky Harbor interfaith chapel in
1988, he figured travelers would use it as a place of
rest and meditation. Almost immediately, he found
himself dealing with passengers needing a hotel for a
night or food.
He got the airport signed up as a social-service
agency under Traveler's Aid, an international network
of organizations that, as the group's slogan says,
provide "a helping hand along the way."
Through that Washington, D.C.-based group, he was able
to start offering such things as discounted Greyhound
bus tickets and phone calls for stranded passengers.
About nine years ago, Young said, he heard from a
domestic-violence shelter. A woman needed help getting
out of town. Young worked to get a bus ticket so she
could get to family in another state.
Other such crisis calls kept coming over the years.
Young looked for additional funding. He received some
through The Arizona Republic's Season for Sharing
holiday-giving program. But as the need continued,
Young asked the city's aviation department for a
full-time social worker.
The city approved a one-year trial run of the program
in June 2006. This year, it approved the program for a
three-year run. According to city documents, the
program's budget cannot exceed $72,000 a year. The
city's airport advisory board approved the contract
Young said he gave the city statistics about the type
of help given out at Sky Harbor. But probably more
compelling was the city's own research into the
programs at other airports.
"They confirmed for themselves there was a need for
this type of assistance," Young said.
So much need
Martin, who has worked for 20 years helping
domestic-violence victims and homeless people through
a church ministry in Ohio, had the proper background
of caring needed to fill the position, Young said.
Martin remembers the first domestic-violence case she
dealt with. A woman loaded her three children and a
single bag of belongings into her car and drove to the
airport looking to flee a violent home. An airport
Navigator, the purple-shirted volunteers who guide
passengers through Sky Harbor, spotted the woman in
obvious distress, trying to buy a ticket to Chicago,
"They all came in crying," Martin said.
Martin helped the woman contact family, who wired the
money for airplane tickets. Martin helped occupy the
children's time during the hours-long wait. She also
counseled and prayed with their mother.
"You just see so much here," she said.
Martin started her job just weeks before a distressed
traveler died in the custody of airport police. Carol
Gotbaum, a New York woman, had a reported meltdown
Sept. 28 after missing a connecting flight to Tucson.
It is just the kind of situation that the aid program
was designed to help.
"Things unfolded so rapidly," Young said. "There
wasn't an opportunity for police to get hold of us, to
inform us that there was someone who might need our
According to Phoenix police, 25 minutes elapsed
between when a ticket agent first called officers to
report Gotbaum's erratic behavior and when officers
found her dead in a holding cell, her restraint chain
around her neck.
Young points out a final irony: The holding cell where
Gotbaum died is directly below the chapel office.
Martin said it's unfair for people to judge the
airport's safety net by the Gotbaum case.
"You're just judging that one incident. Look at all
the people we help," she said. "They have no idea what
goes on at the airport."
The publicity over the Gotbaum case did generate a
call from another family who feared their relative
would face a similar fate, Martin said.
The woman, in Phoenix for a funeral, had called her
out-of-state relatives after landing at Sky Harbor to
say that she couldn't find her luggage. She sounded
hysterical on the phone and the family, knowing the
woman was bipolar, called Martin for help.
Martin headed down to baggage claim to look for the
woman, with no luck. She then put out a page for the
woman and alerted other airport personnel. A Navigator
found the woman, who had somehow made her way to
"We helped her get where she needed to get," Martin
Not all of Martin and Young's work involves airport
passengers in distress. On a recent morning, Martin
dealt with a homeless veteran found wandering in a
Phoenix park. The Carl T. Hayden VA Medical Center
helped him locate a cousin in Deming, N.M., Martin
said. She helped arrange a bus ticket for the man and
saw him off at the Greyhound station.
Most people who come to Martin are referred. Busy days
at the airport don't necessarily translate into busy
days for her. Crises arrive on their own schedule.
One incident involved a man who gave his name as
Patrick. He had just arrived from Connecticut and was
hungry but had no money. His mother wasn't coming to
get him until later that afternoon, and an airport
worker pointed him toward the chaplain's office.
Though some of the man's story didn't add up, Martin
still walked Patrick to an airport bakery for a meal.
Maybe Patrick was not on a flight, Martin said, but
there was no doubt he was hungry.
"I don't pry unless I feel he's in danger," Martin
said. If she saw him again in the next few days, she
would refer him to some other agency to deal with his
underlying problem, she said.
Maybe it's because the office is hidden away, but
Martin and Young said they don't get a lot of walk-ins
who might take advantage of the program. They have
refused help to people they felt were looking for a
handout rather than for emergency need, they said.
It seems it would be hard for the pair to say no,
however, given that between their desks hangs a
tapestry of St. Francis of Assisi.
"For most people," Martin said, "it's a humbling
experience to say, 'I don't have any money. I need
Martin finds it spiritually and professionally
fulfilling to help find comfort in such a bustling
place. Before she worked there, she knew Sky Harbor as
most might, as a place that breeds stress.
"Oh," she said, "I hated the airport."
Reach the reporter at richard.
firstname.lastname@example.org or 602-444-8473.