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Holidays Can't Stop Volunteer After 35 Years of Service

I would say at least 25% of the residents here don’t have family who come and see them…even on the holidays.

In 1978 Honda introduced its Prelude, East Germany sent its first cosmonaut in space, the Washington Bullets were NBA champions, and Grace Cantey helped launch the American Red Cross volunteer program at Alexian Village Nursing home in Chattanooga.

35 years later, the Prelude isn’t being manufactured, East Germany doesn’t exist, and the Bullets are known as the Wizards; however, Grace Cantey still helps dozens of elderly people through her work with the Red Cross.

When Grace was asked to join the program, she had no idea she’d spend the next three and a half decades volunteering at the nursing home. In fact, Grace says she didn’t know if she even wanted to participate at all. “I said I would have to pray about it. I just never liked the idea of working in a nursing home,” she said as she reflected on that call from a friend, Doris, who was already a volunteer at the Red Cross. “My son worked here one summer as a volunteer [n the 1970’s]. I would just drop him off, but no… I didn’t even want to come in. It wasn’t for me.”

Before she had the opportunity to pray, she was already on the schedule. Doris called back to say she had assigned her a day to come in and volunteer. Uncertain and nervous, Grace showed up to her assigned shift.

She’s been on the schedule ever since.

Grace explains how the Red Cross helps people at Alexian Village as she feeds, Josephine, an elderly black woman in a wheel chair who barely has the strength to swallow her lunch, despite it being completely blended in a food processor.

Josephine is just one of the thousands of people Grace has helped over the years. Feeding is a big part of what Red Cross volunteers at Alexian Village do. “She’s a pretty good eater. Some are better than others,” Grace says as she smiles at Josephine.

Although she has worked with so many people over the years, she does a great job of remembering the names of the residents. One story leads into another and then another about people she’s touched over the years. Grace tells stories of time spent with residents who have passed on – even one story about a man who tried to escape during a Christmas party. “We had one man who tried to get out while we were here watching the floor. Luckily, we noticed he had gone missing and quickly found him before he got too far,“ chuckles Grace.

The Red Cross does much more than just helping with meals. Tuesdays at Alexian Village are known as “Red Cross Tuesdays” because its volunteers from the local chapter who organize most of the activities.

Many of the female residents stop by the Red Cross salon to have their nails painted. There are hundreds of colors to choose from. Even on Christmas Eve, demand for a fresh coat was pretty high. “I’ve already done seven today,” said Marylyn Kolbas. Marylyn has been a Red Cross volunteer working at Alexian Villages since 1997. Even before Marylyn arrives to begin painting and trimming nails, a group of three women are waiting outside the salon.

They want to hurry and have their nails looking good before an assembly happening later that afternoon. The afternoon activities vary every Tuesday of the month. Sometimes a musician comes. Other times a local trainer put on a dog show for the residents.

On Christmas Eve, Grace decided to keep it simple. Volunteers, nursing home staff, and residents would gather around to sing Christmas Carols. Of course, it wouldn’t be complete without Red Cross volunteers (wearing Doughnut Dolly uniforms) handing out gingerbread cookies and other refreshments. It’s the little things like this that keep Red Cross volunteers coming back week after week.

After 35 Christmases at Alexian Village, volunteers have learned that often heartache accompanies the joy of the holidays. “I would say at least 25% of the residents here don’t have family who come and see them…even on the holidays,” said Grace. She says even though it’s difficult knowing that most of the people she encounters have only a few months to live, it’s comforting knowing she is providing them some relief. “It’s hard, but you just have to accept it and do what you can to make this experience the best it can be.”

Grace says when the program began in 1978, they used to have dozens of volunteers and helped Monday through Friday, but over the years, those numbers have dwindled. The decline can certainly be attributed, in part, to the special and unique person it takes to volunteer in this kind of environment.

Grace shrugs off her accomplishments with a smile, “If I’m not here to say Merry Christmas, then who will?”

If you’re interested in becoming a Red Cross volunteer at Alexian Brothers Villages in Chattanooga, visit redcross.org/setn