West Va. Woman Finds Joy Volunteering at VA - Veterans Health Administration
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West Va. Woman Finds Joy Volunteering at VA

Woman volunteer sits with a Veteran patient

Volunteer Joan Chambers visits with Army Veteran Leslie Vannatter, a patient at the Huntington VA Medical Center. Photo by Deborah Brammer, Huntington VA

By Tom Cramer
Thursday, January 29, 2015

At 67, Joan Chambers is a whirlwind of energy with one primary mission in life: to be of service to others.

Veterans are grateful that she spends a good deal of that energy doing volunteer work at Huntington VA Medical Center (VAMC) in West Virginia.

Staying Busy

“I’m one of nine children,” Chambers explained, “and my mother was always telling us, ‘Don’t you have anything to do?’ So I always made sure I had something to do. I learned to stay busy at an early age.”

Chambers said she began volunteering at the Huntington VAMC shortly after her husband, Nicholas, died in 2005. “He was a Navy Veteran who served in Vietnam,” she recounted. “The doctors here at Huntington VA discovered his cancer. He was treated here and then, toward the end, VA provided him hospice care in our home.

“The VA hospice people were so kind to us,” she said. “I wanted to volunteer here to try and thank them for how kind they were, and to help make life a little easier for the Veterans being treated here.”

There’s also another reason Chambers spends so much time at the VA.“I feel closer to my husband when I’m here,” she said.

An Amazing Mind; a Good Heart

Teresa Boyes, acting volunteer coordinator at Huntington VAMC, said she often finds herself in awe of Chambers’ energy and her devotion to Veterans.

“Her mind amazes me,” Boyes observed. “She retains everything. She remembers everyone she meets, and she seems to know everybody. And she has this awesome ability to connect with people.”

Chambers said she’s always been a ‘people’ person, but had ample opportunity to hone those innate skills during 33 years as an elementary school teacher and principal.

“You learn to be observant when you’re working with children,” she explained. “You learn how to listen. You learn how to tell which ones are most in need of help, and you try to help them.”

 It just gives me a good feeling to help someone, to make their life a little better. 


Chambers has undoubtedly helped bring comfort and light into the lives of hundreds of hospitalized Veterans over nearly a decade of volunteer work.

As Boyes explained it, “Joan’s husband had cancer and received treatment here before he died, so she felt she wanted to give back. And she’s given back tenfold or more. She’s here every day, and over the last nine years she’s racked up over 6,000 hours of volunteer work. The woman just goes and goes all day long,” she added. “She must sleep awfully well at night.”

“I like keeping busy,” Chambers explained. “I worked in the food pantry today. We served about 140 families.”

While Chambers enjoys her work at the Community Food Pantry in her home town of Lavalette, West Virginia, she has other responsibilities that require a bit more emotional fortitude. For example, she’s part of a special team of volunteers at the Huntington VAMC who provide comfort to Veterans in their final days or hours of life.

You’re Not Alone

“Joan told me that when she’s with a dying Veteran, it’s like being with her husband,” explained Boyes. “So it can be very hard for her. But she’s a very caring person. She’ll read to them, hold their hand. She says that’s the least she can do.”

“I don’t want anyone to be alone when they die,” Chambers said plainly. “If I can do something to make their passing a little easier, to provide them a little comfort at the end, then I’ve done what I needed to do.”

She continued: “I was told by a VA nurse that hearing is the last sense to go, so even if their eyes are closed I keep reading to them, or talking to them. I want them to know someone’s there, that someone cares about them. I did that with my husband just before he died. I said, ‘Honey, it’s okay. Go on home. I’ll be there with you soon.’”

VA volunteers are called to serve for different reasons, many of them as beautiful and profound as Joan Chambers’ story. Although these kinds of touching moments happen every day at VA sites of care across the country, they are each unique and deeply personal for all involved. The relationships Veterans have with VA volunteers is irreplaceable — it’s an essential part of delivering the care Veterans have earned and deserve. To learn more about volunteering at a VA facility near you, visit www.volunteer.va.gov