Chapstick, a toothbrush, and a comb. It’s not a lot to ask for.
But for the ill and injured military men and women at the Long Beach Veterans Administration (VA) Medical Center, it’s a small yet welcome reminder of the comforts of home or everyday life amidst daily doctor visits and blood draws. Especially for those who end up staying longer than expected.
Three mornings a week, vets can count on an offering of various comfort items, including crossword puzzles, books and toiletry items being wheeled into their rooms via pushcarts by volunteers from the Red Cross Greater Long Beach Chapter.
These Red Cross Service to the Armed Forces volunteers visit in teams of two, outfitted with smiles and a helpful spirit. Their goal is to visit every veteran at the hospital. Each newly admitted veteran is presented with a card outlining the variety of items offered at no cost, along with how to reach the “Freedom Line,” a dedicated VA Red Cross phone extension established just for these requests. These special requests are included with the regular staple of items always included on carts.
The goal of the program, which began 20 years ago, is for volunteers to visit with new patients within one working day of being admitted to the hospital. In January alone, volunteers served 1,096 veterans, as well as a dozen or so homeless veterans who dropped by for items such as sewing kits and razors for shaving. Volunteers collectively logged about 400 hours.
“[The veterans] are just so grateful that you’re there to give them a hand,” says John Shisko, the volunteer director of the Red Cross VA program and a Vietnam War veteran himself.
Visits are typically brief, sometimes ending with a request for deodorant or a backscratcher. Items not provided by the hospital, but made available at no cost to the patient, through donations made to both the VA and the Red Cross.
As volunteers go room-to-room --- visiting with those in the Spinal Cord Injury and Blind Rehabilitation units, as well as terminally ill patients who are receiving end-of-life care at the Community Living Center --- they smile effortlessly, chat with the patients, and take shopping orders from them for purchase at the hospital’s Exchange. Volunteers also distribute Veterans History Project flyers to those who are interested.
“We have a wonderful group of volunteers. They come in asking what they can do for our veterans, and the veterans can really sense their compassion and generosity,” says Shisko. “Seeing that response is so gratifying that it makes [them] want to come back even more.”
Anyone interested in a volunteer opportunity or donating items to the Long Beach VA can contact Long Beach VA Voluntary Services at (562) 826-8000, ext. 5715.
Volunteers also are needed to staff a similar new program at the West Los Angeles Veterans Administration Medical Center. Contact Svetlana Fusekova at Svetlana.Fusekova@redcross.org or Kerry Khan at Kerry.Khan3@redcross.org to learn more.