5: Saying Thank You

5: Saying Thank You

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Volunteering & Giving Back

Saying Thank You

What we keep, we lose; what we give away, we keep forever.

~Axel Munthe, The Story of San Michele

“I’m bringing a book with me,” I called to my father as we headed out the door. We were on our way to his VA medical appointment and I was bracing myself for a long, tedious day. My father had just come to live with me in California, and I had no prior experience with the Veteran’s Administration. When he was living in New Jersey, Dad received all of his medical care through the VA there. He said that treatment there was a lot like going to the Department of Motor Vehicles — long wait times, redundant paperwork, apathetic staff and government bureaucracy. I expected a similar experience as we pulled up to the clinic in San Jose. In my haste, I forgot to take the book with me when we left the car. As it turned out, I never would have had a chance to read it anyway.

Upon entering the clinic, I was immediately impressed by the neat décor and welcoming lobby. The colors were soft and pleasant and the furniture looked new and comfortable, though very few chairs were occupied. I wondered where all the vets were waiting. We found our way to the proper department and Dad gave his name and information to the receptionist. She greeted him warmly and assured him that a doctor would see him shortly. Before he was able to take a seat, my father was escorted to an exam room — three minutes ahead of his appointment time. The receptionist explained that I would be able to speak with the doctor at the conclusion of the exam and she directed me to the coffee corner where I was offered a complimentary cup of coffee by a friendly volunteer.

“Is it always like this?” I asked.

“Like what?” he replied.

“Quiet. Calm. Orderly. I don’t see any lines; there doesn’t seem to be anyone waiting. Don’t any vets come here?”

“Oh, plenty of vets come here.” He smiled. “It’s just that they’re well taken care of. This isn’t like those other clinics that you read about in the paper. They run this place pretty good.”

We were out of there in under ninety minutes complete with blood tests and medications. Dad’s comprehensive exam had taken almost a full hour — an absolute luxury by any contemporary medical standard. In each department, the staff was friendly, helpful and displayed genuine regard for my father and his concerns. It was apparent that the employees and volunteers actually enjoyed their work and took great pride in providing the best service possible for America’s retired servicemen.

Over the next few months my regard for the VA clinics and hospitals grew as I followed my father through his appointments and procedures. I had never given much thought to our nation’s veterans and I didn’t consider myself overly patriotic, but the dedication to service and genuine regard for patients demonstrated by the VA staff propelled me to want to be a part of such an honorable organization. I had no medical skills or administrative inclinations, and very little time, but I did have one thing that I could share: my art.

On my first day as a volunteer art teacher I was introduced to ten men seated around a long table, most of whom were in their seventies and eighties. They shared their names, branch of service and whether or not they served during wartime. One of the vets was a World War II soldier who had taken part in the invasion of Normandy and had recently been honored by the government for his dedicated service. Another was a flight surgeon who spent his civilian years as a medical doctor. I was humbled by their accomplishments, dignity and quiet pride. When they completed their introductions I did what I was instructed to do during orientation — I thanked them for their service and dedication to preserving our freedom. I thanked them for giving me the opportunity to work with them.

Despite thirty years as an art teacher, designing activities for the group was a challenge. The activities had to be engaging, but could not be too difficult or frustrating for arthritic fingers and dimmed vision. The projects needed relevance or they would easily be dismissed as “kid stuff.”

We began by making crafts to be sold at the yearly Day Respite fundraiser. Positive encouragement, praise and participation by the Day Respite staff helped boost morale and motivate the men to continue creating. We displayed their work on the walls of the Day Respite room, and throughout the clinic lobby and waiting areas. The men took great pride in their work and each week I would notice that they were paying closer attention to detail and taking more time with their projects. One day, while completing a complex design, one of the vets looked up and said, “If someone had told me twenty years ago that I would be sitting here today coloring I would have told them that they didn’t know what they were talking about. But there’s something to this, you know? It kind of makes you feel good.”

It makes me feel good, too. The vets believe that they are on the receiving end of my volunteer services. Perhaps they don’t recognize the exchange of joy that takes place during each visit. It is truly rewarding to be able to bring the gift of the creative process to a group that has long forgotten the joys of making art. On that first day, when I thanked the vets for their service, I realized that nothing I could offer these men would ever equal their efforts protecting our American freedom. But for two hours each week, with a little paper and paint and glue, I take them on an adventure that allows them to experience the joys of creative expression and the magic of art.

~T.A. Barbella

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