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Virus changes the face of VA volunteering

Volunteers Bob Manning, left, and Jane Peters tend the coffee desk at the Oscar G. Johnson VA Medical Center in Iron Mountain. The presence of volunteers back at the Iron Mountain-based facility has been a very welcomed sight for veterans and employees.

IRON MOUNTAIN — As the Oscar G. Johnson VA Medical Center celebrates National Volunteer Week, they welcome back in-person volunteers.

“We really missed the smiling faces of our volunteers and we were so happy to safely welcome many of them back over the last few months!” said Katie Maxon, voluntary service chief. “They have an incredible impact on the veteran experience, and our patients and staff were acutely aware of their absence.”

It’s been a challenging year, including a few months when all volunteer activity was fully suspended due to COVID-19 pandemic restrictions. The VA was able to safely reintegrate volunteer activities, starting last summer with volunteer drivers and then welcoming back greeters and coffee station volunteers last fall. Volunteer activities in the Community Living Center are still restricted to protect the most vulnerable veterans, but as more individuals are vaccinated, staff hope to see volunteers return to service, helping with activities, outings and visiting veterans.

“We can’t wait to safely welcome back our activities volunteers to the CLC,” said Heather LaPalm, recreation therapist. “As staff, we do all we can to engage and entertain our residents, but they love talking to the volunteers, many of whom are veterans themselves, and spending time getting the know them.”

More than 225 volunteers support the veterans and staff at the medical center and in clinics across the Upper Peninsula and northern Wisconsin.

Veteran Service Organizations quickly adapted to volunteer restrictions and supported donations to fund gift bags for all of the residents in lieu of a traditional ceremony for Memorial Day.

While COVID-19 has limited some activities for now, they typically serve in many roles: providing transport to and from medical appointments, greeting and directing patients at our facilities, escorting patients who need special assistance, providing recreation and improving quality of life for residents in the Community Living Center, supporting hospice and companion programs for end-of-life care, taking on special projects or administratively supporting staff and sharing time with veterans at the coffee desk.

“While we have always appreciated all that our volunteers have done, their absence made us aware of the true value they bring to our medical center and our veterans,” said James Rice, director. “We’re so pleased to have many of them safely back on station.”

In 2020, the VA received more than $40,000 in monetary donations to augment veteran care and another $130,000 in non-monetary donations to support comfort and improve the quality of life for the veterans. While those numbers are significant, the human component is priceless. Despite COVID restrictions, VA volunteers still contributed 17,037 hours to the VA Medical Center, which is equivalent to eight full-time positions.

“It was truly amazing to see how donors and volunteers adapted to the COVID restrictions and found other ways to stay connected to veterans with phone calls or cards,” Maxon said. “They constantly contacted our Voluntary Service Office to continue to fund activities in the CLC, even if they couldn’t volunteer to coordinate them.”

During National Volunteer Week, the VA Medical Center normally hosts special events and provides accolades to honor the VA volunteers and express gratitude for all they do to support veteran care. This year’s celebration will be postponed until summer to accommodate outdoor activities that can follow COVID-19 guidelines and recommendations.

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