For most of Columbia, Valentine’s Day is already a distant memory.
But at the Truman Veterans Hospital, thousands of brightly colored hearts and other reminders of the holiday continue to line the hallways and patient rooms. Still more wait to be distributed.
This week marks the 27th annual National Salute to Hospitalized Veterans at VA hospitals, a weeklong celebration for the public to show its appreciation for retired soldiers.
An estimated 200 visitors have dropped by the hospital this week, said Pamela Isaacson, the volunteer services coordinator. Members of community groups who couldn’t make it to the hospital sent donations, such as wheelchair caddies, sugar-free chocolates and other items to make the patients’ stays more enjoyable.
“National Salute provides us an opportunity to show how important volunteers are to VA hospitals,” Isaacson said, stressing the need for volunteers throughout the year, not just during special events.
“It brings tears to their eyes,” Isaacson said. “Some people have never heard somebody say ‘thank you’, and that goes a long way.”
One resident who knows the value of volunteerism is Mary Benton of Columbia, who has donated her time to Truman Veterans Hospital since 1996. Before moving to Boone County, she volunteered at a VA hospital in South Carolina, helping to coordinate some of the National Salute activities.
“My husband was a veteran, and I like to feel that I’m doing something that would please him by volunteering for other veterans,” Benton said.
She works once a week at the information desk in the hospital’s entrance, providing directions to visitors and helping patients figure out where to go in the vast hospital complex.
“They look forward to having people visit,” Benton said. “Veterans like having someone to talk to and to tell their stories to.”
One patient with no shortage of stories is Harold Esser, 86, of Boonville, who has been in the hospital’s long-term care unit for nearly two weeks after injuring his hip in a fall. He expressed his appreciation for this week’s visitors.
“It was a pleasure to talk to them and chat with them. I like friendly people,” said Esser, a member of the 15th Air Force’s 451st Bomb Group during World War II. Though Esser remained in bed because of hip soreness, he eagerly regaled visitors with stories of his time in Europe, including a Christmas Eve landing in Italy in 1943.
Isaacson said she hopes the activities, which conclude Saturday, will inspire visitors to make long-term commitments to volunteer service. She is optimistic that visitors will leave with an increased awareness of the hospital’s needs and seek out opportunities to help.
“We try to provide a volunteer opportunity to meet a person’s schedule and to meet the need that they’re trying to fill,” she said.