Volunteers support America’s heroes

VA volunteers providing free coffee and snacks to veterans and visitors — from left, in front are Diane Thomas and Jean Frances Newhouse; in back are Ron Zahn, Ron LaDuron and Bob Manning.

IRON MOUNTAIN — “How can you not love being a volunteer?” said Jill Patterson, one of the many volunteers who work at the Oscar G. Johnson VA Medical Center in Iron Mountain.

“The veterans are just so friendly. They share a smile with you and you with them … and everyone is happy,” Patterson said.

Every day, veterans at the medical center are greeted by volunteers just like Patterson, who feel honored to give their time to support the nation’s heroes. “If they hadn’t served and provided for us, I couldn’t be here to volunteer for them,” she added.

“What impresses me is the passion and kindness with which our volunteers serve our veterans,” said Katie Maxon, chief of VA voluntary services. “Our volunteers — many of them veterans themselves — are truly motived to give back to those who served, supporting our mission to honor veterans by providing exceptional health care that improves their health and well-being.”

Last year, Oscar G. Johnson VA volunteers provided more than 32,000 hours of service, which is equivalent to 15 full-time employees. They provided invaluable support to many departments and programs at the medical center that include recreation and pet visitation, Companion Care hospice program, patient escort, coffee station and Red Coat Ambassadors, to name a few.

VA volunteers headed for an outing with residents are from left: front, veteran Dean Nelson; middle, Ray Hamm, veteran Ken Collard, Rebekah Joyce and Tim Daily; and back, Carl Krenn and Bob Manning.

“Our volunteers show up every day with their arms wide open for tasks that directly impact the patient experience of our veterans,” said Drew DeWitt, acting medical center director. “They continue to welcome veterans with a warm smile to our facility as part of our Red Coat Ambassador program.”

This program, in place at VA medical centers nationwide, positions volunteers in red vests at main entrances to help veterans easily identified individuals who can assist them with navigating the medical center.

“The Red Coat Ambassadors are often the first people visitors or patients see when they come to our medical center, and some of them may be experiencing uncertainty over symptoms or a diagnosis. A friendly, caring welcome may seem a small thing, but is it important,” DeWitt said.

Another program that relies on volunteers is the medical center’s Veterans Transportation Network, or VTN. According to Maxon, 125 volunteer drivers logged more than 210,000 miles transporting almost 2,000 veterans to and from their VA appointments in 2018. The program covers the entire VA patient service area, transporting veterans from across the U.P. and northern Wisconsin.

“Our driver volunteers are astounding,” Maxon said. “They bring patients to our facility from Sault Ste. Marie, Ironwood, the Keweenaw, Rhinelander, Menominee, and everywhere in between. They make it possible for many of our veterans to access health care despite our rural area and transportation challenges.”

VA volunteer Frank D’Alberto, in his red vest, is ready to welcome veterans and assist them in finding their way.

“Supporting the volunteers of this facility is very humbling,” Maxon said. “They have an incredible work ethic, fierce dedication and passionate hearts!”

During National Volunteer Week, the Iron Mountain VA Medical Center honored its local volunteers at a recognition luncheon at Pine Grove Country Club. Drive volunteers will be honored at ceremonies in their respective areas throughout the spring.

Anyone interested in volunteering at the Iron Mountain VA can call the voluntary services office at 906-774-3300, ext. 32780, or go to www.ironmountain.va.gov/giving or www.volunteer.va.gov.