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Hospital volunteers wave a half-century of hellos

In the early 1950s, a decade and a half before All Children's Hospital opened, two women began donating their time.


© St. Petersburg Times,
published June 6, 2001

ST. PETERSBURG -- As they have on every Monday morning since 1991, Katherine Salter and Evelyn Felsen donned pink volunteer jackets and solicitous miens to deal with the steady stream of families entering All Children's Hospital in varying stages of illness and anxiety.

They understand well the needs of these people. Between them, they have volunteered for almost 100 years at the hospital, first in its earlier incarnation as the American Legion Hospital for Crippled Children and now at their post at the reception desk of the current facility. Of all their work, they say, this volunteer job is their favorite.

"We are the first people they meet," Mrs. Felsen said. "We try to be helpful."

"A lot of times," Miss Salter said, "we'll see they have problems. Their minds are on their children. Sometimes they just need to talk and it makes their whole day better."

Evelyn Felsen, called Evie, became a volunteer at the hospital in 1952, shortly after she and her husband moved to St. Petersburg from St. Louis after his retirement.

"I didn't know a soul when I moved here,' said Mrs. Felsen, 89. "I joined the guild and started volunteering at the hospital. I helped Katherine."

Katherine Salter, 84, had been a nurse in the U.S. Navy until a back injury required retirement in 1951. One of eight children, she was born in St. Petersburg, and her father had a truck farm that supplied vegetables to local hotels. After the Navy, she returned here, enrolled at St. Petersburg Junior College to take education courses and began volunteering at the American Legion Hospital for Crippled Children at 2350 Lakeview Ave. S, now 22nd Avenue S.

She was soon hired by the Pinellas County School Board as a teacher for the hospitalized children, most of whom had contracted polio, a virus that can cause permanent paralysis.

"Polio was at its height then," Miss Salter said. "I taught the older children. They called it Aunt Katherine's school."

"Katherine would have 15 or 16 children wheeled into the auditorium or on the porch in nice weather," Mrs. Felsen said.

"We took them in there because it didn't look like a hospital," Miss Salter added. "They could pretend they weren't so sick. I knew enough to know you couldn't teach chemistry to a child in an iron lung the same way you taught a normal child." The discovery in the 1950s by Dr. Jonas Salk of a vaccine to prevent the disease gradually eliminated polio and made the single-purpose hospital obsolete by the early 1960s. The decision to transform the hospital into a general treatment facility coincided with the one to build a new hospital adjacent to Bayfront Medical Center at Eighth Avenue and Sixth Street S.

Both women went to the new hospital, All Children's Hospital, when it opened in 1967. Miss Salter, who never married, taught for another 11 years, retiring in 1978 but continuing as a volunteer.

Today they are part of a volunteer force numbering more than 500, said Roy Adams, Director of Volunteers at All Children's. They assist with tasks ranging from gift shop help to rocking babies.

Mrs. Felsen and Miss Salter have seen too many technological changes to go into detail. What they remark on is changing mores.

"In the early days," said Miss Salter, "parents brought the child and went home. They didn't stay for surgery. The quicker you left, the better. We were one of the forerunners in getting them to stay."

"We'd move cots into the rooms. Then we had chairs that turned into cots," said Mrs. Felsen. "Once they got used to it, they liked it."

Children, they say, do not change.

"They're often afraid and need to be comforted," Mrs. Felsen said. "Cookies," said Miss Salter, who also teaches children's Bible study classes at Lake Maggiore Baptist Church. "I find oatmeal ones are best."

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