Taking care of their own at VA hospital
By STEPHEN NOHLGREN, Times Staff Writer
SEMINOLE -- Volunteerism among Pinellas County seniors went way up last year. This cozy "escort" room at the VA Medical Center at Bay Pines gives a glimpse why.
Retirees pop in and out every minute or so, hustling off to their next assignment. Someone wheels an ailing vet to physical therapy. Someone else ferries a urine sample to the lab.
At other hospitals, aides in cotton smocks often run errands and move patients around. Not so at the VA Medical Center at Bay Pines, where veterans take care of their own. The hospital and nursing home hold about 400 patients and the wheelchairs are humming.
"Military people are like family," says James Melanson, a 67-year-old volunteer from Largo. "You never lose sight of your buddies in the service. You might not see them for 20 years, but they are right here," he says, tapping his head.
The "escort" room is Volunteer Central, reminiscent of a bustling taxi stand. Agnes Washington, the only paid employee, works the phone and computer as calls pour in for more wheelchair-pushers. Hot coffee and conversation fill the gaps between jobs.
Bob Liszewski (Marines) recalls how military police whacked him in the leg to break a liquor bottle he was smuggling back to base under his pants.
Tom Montgomery (Navy) and Joe Koshler (Air Force) swap stories about quonset huts. Koshler, 73, of Seminole, has volunteered at Bay Pines for 17 years. One of his jobs was guiding new nurses on a historical briefing of the 400-acre campus.
"I was giving a tour and mentioned that, years ago, the credit union was in a quonset hut. This young thing asked, 'What's a quonset hut?' "
Bay Pines has roughly 2,500 paid employees. Last year, about 1,700 people volunteered there, saving the government almost $4-million. Some of the individual contributions are prodigious.
Koshler has put in more than 13,600 hours. On some "escort" days, he figures, he walks 10 miles. Phil Velders (Navy) commutes by bus from Hudson, 21/2 hours each way. Laverne Maxwell, a 78-year-old former Air Force sergeant decked in American flag earrings and pin, has tallied more than 30,000 hours -- the equivalent of 15 years of full-time work.
"This is payback time," she says. "I had good care here. My late husband had quality care here before he died. And my present husband is getting good care here."
Her red coat signifies that she is a "guest coordinator," which means "I look for people wandering around looking lost and I tell them where to go."
Bob Day, a 65-year-old Navy and Army vet, drives to Bay Pines two or three days a week from his home in Sun City Center in south Hillsborough. Then he drives a Bay Pines van that picks up patients who don't have a ride.
Day was injured by a grenade in Vietnam. Now, "My toes hurt, my hands hurt. I have arthritis, COPD and a hard time breathing. Then I come here and see guys who are worse off than me, and it makes me feel good."
Like many older Bay Pines volunteers, Day belongs to an organization called the Retired Senior Volunteer Program. Financed by the federal government, it coordinates volunteer opportunities all over the county. Its annual awards banquet today at St. Petersburg's Coliseum figures to be a bit crowded. Membership grew by 30 percent last year.
One factor is patriotism, says RSVP spokeswoman Lori Osborne. In his 2002 State of the Union address, President Bush urged citizens to join "USA Freedom Corps," a variety of volunteer programs that fall under one umbrella, including RSVP.
Coming four months after the World Trade Center bombing, the appeal gave people a way to participate, and RSVP rolls jumped 25 percent in one quarter.
To volunteer for RSVP
Pinellas: (727) 327-8690, ext. 22
Hillsborough: (813) 272-5031
West Pasco: (727) 774-2207
Central Pasco: (813) 794-2207
East Pasco: (352) 524-2207
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