VA Maryland Health Care System
Making a Difference
Established in 1974 as a way to recognize and celebrate the efforts of volunteers, National Volunteer Week—April 15-22-- has become a nationwide effort to urge people to get out and volunteer. It is also an opportunity to highlight the intricate role volunteers play in advancing quality of care and patient engagement in general, and in particular, throughout the VA Maryland Health Care System where nearly 1,000 community members invest their time and talent worth more than $650,000, helping us fulfil our mission of serving our nation’s veterans. Volunteers at the VA Maryland Health Care System perform a variety of jobs, from office work to reading to hospice patients and everything in between. Below are some vignettes about why a handful of volunteers have chosen to invest their time throughout the VA Maryland Health Care System.
When Kim Cyprien moved to Tucson, AZ to be closer to family, one of the first things she did was volunteer at the Tucson VA Medical Center. As a little girl, she remembered accompanying her grandmother to her job in a nursing home as a nurse’s aid where she helped people, not just because it was her job but because she genuinely cared about their welfare. So caring and volunteering seemed like an extension of her childhood memories and a way to honor her grandmother.
“I was raised by my grandmother and great grandmother. They always were helping others. My grandmother thought nothing of taking people in,” said Cyprien, a Montclair, NJ native who first moved to Baltimore, MD as a young adult before living in other parts of the country, settling in Tucson for a while.
“I volunteered as an escort at the Tucson VA and fell in love with it. Veterans have been through a lot, and they are open to talking about their experiences, their health fears, their time in the military,” she said. “I just fell in love with being an escort.”
When Cyprien returned to Baltimore in 2012, she diligently began looking for work and while doing so, she signed up to volunteer at the Baltimore VA Medical Center as a patient escort. “I felt drawn to this place. When I first arrived to sign up as a volunteer, I didn’t like what it looked like outside, but I believe that what you give out, you get back. I make it a point to always wear a smile because people are receptive when you’re kind and wearing a smile,” Cyprien said.
In addition to her duties as a patient escort, Cyprien also works in the Voluntary Service Office as an administrative assistant, as needed. She assists in patient units and also serves in the evening and during weekends as a group escort, leading groups around the medical center. For her diligence and dedication, she was recently awarded a Gold VA Pin.
Minta Davis,first volunteered at the Loch Raven VA Medical Center before moving to Cecil County where she later joined the Voluntary Service team at the Perry Point VA Medical Center. “I always knew I’d be volunteering soon after retiring. VA was advertising for volunteers, and once I completed the training I was very happy to work with other Veterans, whom I see as my family. I love what I’m doing.”
An Air National Guard Veteran, in the military Davis worked as a radio operator before being transferred to a chaplain service job. “I fell in love with that job, and the idea of interacting with people and helping them was the highlight of my career,” said Davis.
That job opened a whole new exciting world for Davis, who then became a CPR and First Aid instructor, and later became a yoga teacher. “Helping others has humbled me, and I especially wanted to help other veterans because veterans are my family, my people.”
When she volunteered at the Loch Raven VA, Davis served in hospice care, a task she now continues at the Perry Point VA Medical Center and as a guide in the newly opened museum in the historic Grist Mill. She recently received permission to teach a yoga class to Perry Point employees. “I love volunteering at the VA. It’s not about making money. For me, it’s about helping other people in a positive and affirming way.”
Mark Mills, an Army Veteran, spends his time giving back. When not serving as the Commander of the Disabled American Veterans (DAV) #18, Mills can be found at the Loch Raven VA Medical Center where he and his partner, a black Labrador named Georgie Girl, staff the free Coffee Cart two days a week. In his DAV role, he and the group sponsor monthly movie tickets, lead the monthly Bingo games, and serve breakfast in the hospice unit at Loch Raven twice monthly.
After 32 years in the U.S. Army that included tours in Iraq and as part of the reserves, this Operation Enduring Freedom/Operation Iraqi Freedom veteran began experiencing results from an injury that forced him to retire. “I wasn’t happy to have to leave the military,” he said. “But I couldn’t keep going the way it was.”
After retirement, Mills found a new sense of purpose that aligns with his sense of duty and service. “Volunteering at the VA gives me a sense of pride, a sense of purpose, especially since I’m helping fellow veterans,” he said. “The VA helped me so much, I felt the least I could do is give back.”
At the Loch Raven VA Medical Center, Mills has found his people—people whom he understands and who understand him—other veterans familiar with the stresses and injuires that come with wearing the cloth of the nation. He’s helping others while, helping himself. “It’s self-healing to volunteer,” he said.
Before Milton McKenna decided to volunteer at the VA Maryland Health Care System, this 25- year Army Veteran had already retired from the military and from a career in education, developing tools for students and families needing assistance in mental health and behavioral issues. As an Army Veteran, he knew he wanted to give back, and so, once he retired the final time, he decided to volunteer at the Fort Meade VA Outpatient Clinic as a driver in the Veterans Transpiration Program. He’s been volunteering for two and a half years.
“I volunteer one day per week, unless we get super busy, and we all chip in,” he said of the effort that includes a total of 10 volunteer drivers.
The Transportation Program provides transportation to veterans who cannot drive or do not have transportation to and from their VA medical appointments using vehicles donated to the Department of Veterans Affairs by the Disabled American Veteran organization. Volunteers often serve 8 or 9 hours per time, often beginning their stint as early as 8 a.m. and ending around 5 p.m.
“I find this to be a fulfilling experience in that I have the ability to give back to help out my fellow veterans,” said McKenna, who enjoys the experience of meeting new people—other veterans—whenever he volunteers. “I meet all kinds of people from every walk of life. I am truly blessed to be able to give back for all of the good fortune that I have received over my life time,” he added.
Fran Elliott Taylor, a retired nurse, comes from a military family: her father, brother, nephews, and cousins all served in various military branches and in wars, including WWII, Korea, Vietnam, and in the Middle East conflicts. Once she became widowed, it seemed like a natural progression to serve those who served our nation, and she began volunteering at the Cambridge VA Outpatient Clinic in October 2009.
“I wanted to do my part to help,” she said. “I always thank veterans for their service.”
To this end, Fran spends every Wednesday at the Cambridge clinic, making sure that nurses have the appointment rosters and anything else they need to ensure a smooth day. She restocks the patient education bins, completes other administrative work, and anything else that helps clinicians and patients. She also helped the clinic coordinator to establish a reading nook that has evolved into a lending library of sorts.
“I started straightening out the books, and then Karen (one of the managers) brought in a bookcase and now the veterans peruse the book shelves,” said Fran, who also helps decorate the clinic during various holidays.
At the end of her Wednesday volunteer tours, she leaves the VA knowing she made a difference in the lives of the veterans with whom she interacted.
“I enjoy what I do.at the clinic and interacting with the veterans,” she said.
Married for 16 years and now both retired, Joseph and Clara Rihel spend one day a week volunteering at the Glen Burnie VA Outpatient Clinic. A U.S. Navy veteran and a retired Lt. in the Baltimore City Fire Department, Joseph, 75, has been volunteering as a driver in the Veterans Transpiration Program for 13 years as a way to give back to his fellow veterans. “I wanted to do a little something to give back,” he said. “Some veterans would have no way to get to their doctor appointments without the transportation program. I have a driving skill and I’m happy to help.”
His wife Clara, 70, retired from driving an Anne Arundel County School Bus for 35 years, runs the facility’s free Cooffee Cart. “After driving around the county for 35 years, I’m happy staying inside,” she said. “I’m happy to give veterans a free cup of coffee and a smile.”
When she first started volunteering she worked 5 hours a day , 5 days a week. But then she recruited other volunteers so now she volunteers 1 day a week for five hours. In addition to coordinating the Coffee Cart , she also does some administrative work—stuffing envelopes and whatever else needed. She comes from a military family—her father, uncle, nephews all Army and Air Force folks--and this is her way of saying thank you.
“It’s the least I can do,” she said. “It’s like the Bible verse: Whatever you do for one of the least of these brothers and sisters, you do for me.”
Her husband echoes the sentiment, saying, “I’m blessed. If you want to be blessed, volunteer at the VA.”
To volunteer at the VA Maryland Health Care System and give back to the veterans who sacrificed for the way of life that we enjoy today, click here, https://www.maryland.va.gov/giving/volunteer001.asp and then select the Volunteer Now link.