Long before we had highway rest stops and airport food courts, the only way to travel cross-country was by rail, boat or a primitive network of roads. Back in the mid-1800’s, the journey could be arduous, uncomfortable, even dangerous.
Pioneers faced huge hurdles as they headed west to explore the frontier or cash in on the Gold Rush—hurdles like exposure to cholera, unreliable stagecoach schedules and lack of access to food and medicine. During that time, the city of St. Louis became a stopping point for weary road-warriors in need of rest and refreshment. That’s why the city’s mayor left half a million dollars in his will to create the Travelers Aid movement, supporting anyone on a long distance journey through unfamiliar territory. By the late 1800’s, a network of Travelers Aid chapters had sprung up in major cities in the Midwest and along the East coast.
At first the focus was on helping the most vulnerable. Ray Flynt, president of Travelers Aid International, says the YWCA was a catalyst for creating many of the early programs because “their interest was in making sure that women and girls had some level of protection when they traveled and that they weren’t preyed upon by strangers.”
Later, Travelers chapters also became involved in welcoming new immigrants to the U.S, says Flynt. “Making sure they knew what facilities were available, where they could get a room, what they could expect to pay for it… so they wouldn’t be abused by somebody that was trying to take advantage of them.”
Travelers Aid was the first non-sectarian social welfare organization in the country, and among its founding principles was to serve anyone regardless of religion, gender or race. In 1941, it became one of the six groups that President Roosevelt tapped to form the United Service Organizations (USO.)
During World War II, Travelers Aid set up 153 “Troops in Transit” lounges at bus and rail stations nationwide to serve troops traveling to and from deployments or training camps. Flynt says their mission was “to greet people, provide a smiling face, a welcome, a cup of coffee… [and] help sew a button back on a uniform.”
Then, as now, the organization depended on the efforts of hundreds of volunteers. Travelers Aid is no longer connected with the USO, but it still has active chapters at about 20 airports and a handful of rail stations, providing information, directions and help with problem-solving.
Even though modern travelers carry laptops and smart phones, Flynt believes they still can benefit from a helping hand and smiling face.
“When you’re away from home, when you’re disconnected from your support systems, that’s where you really need someone you can turn to and that you can trust.” - Malini Wilkes, USO Director of Story Development