United States Department of Veterans Affairs
 Health Care
Volunteers Make a Difference for America's Veterans
Children look over choices of cookies at table in gymnasium while Veteran volunteer  looks on.
Jim McDermott serves cookies to students who visit the Canandaigua VAMC to deliver Valentines

When was the last time you volunteered?

Veteran Jim McDermott never has to think about that question for long. After being treated at the Canandaigua VA Medical Center in upstate New York, he wanted to give back to the VA and the Veteran community, so he started volunteering four, five, sometimes even six times a week.

In just three years, McDermott logged nearly 8,000 hours as a volunteer.

"You name it, I do it," he says humbly.

Jim and thousands of other volunteers are especially busy around Valentine's Day every year as part of the VA-wide National Salute Week honoring America's Veterans.

McDermott is one of the key planners behind the Canandaigua facility's weeklong festivities. Jim and other volunteers and VA staff created a roster of morale-boosting activities for Vets, including gift distributions, ward visits, luncheons, and a Sweetheart Dance.

During Salute Week, if McDermott isn't distributing thousands of Valentines in the auditorium, you might find him greeting student volunteers at the door, or handing out coffee and donuts to Veterans in the wards.

Visiting and interacting with his fellow Veterans is one of McDermott's favorite things about volunteering. "I understand them and they understand me," he said.

McDermott is a popular figure who also serves as Commander of the local Disabled American Veterans (DAV) chapter.

"Volunteering is the greatest thing you can do," he said. "It's got its own rewards. People here are like family."

Students and Super Bowl Celebrations

Janet Rippy knows the feeling. She's been volunteering at the Detroit VA Medical Center for 10 years, coordinating a student volunteer program and scholarship fund.

Rippy and her students regularly provide "comfort items" to new inpatients to make them feel at home. Salute Week brought a new dimension to the volunteer schedule, incorporating a true American institution: the Super Bowl.

In the renamed "Veterans Bowl," students played as surrogates for and against Veterans in the popular Madden football video game. As surrogates, students played in place of Veterans who were unable to compete. When the student scored in the game, so did the Veteran, allowing fun and fellowship to fill in the generation gap.

The students also served as coaches and cheerleaders and provided food for the tailgate party.

"Volunteering gives a person a real sense of self-worth, helping those who have helped keep us free," said Rippy. "Just the 'thank yous' and smiles from the Veterans say it all."

Thirty Years and Counting...

Jenny Hobson knows the Detroit VA very well - she's been volunteering at the facility since 1978. She serves as the representative for the Veterans of Foreign Wars - Auxiliary (VFW-A) at the medical center.

Her group is a longtime supporter of National Salute activities. This year, the VFW-A sponsored the Veterans Bowl, also providing assistance in passing out birthday gifts on a weekly basis for all inpatients and coordinating Bingo activities for the Community Living Center.

"It is overwhelming to see how what we do can change the day, or lives, of the Veterans we help," said Hobson. "To give just a little time, you get back such big rewards."

"National Salute Week has always brought excitement from the community as they are given a stage to show their recognition for some of our most important citizens," said Bill Browning, Chief of Voluntary Services at the Detroit VA. "It's amazing to see the pride our volunteers show to the visitors we have during National Salute Week."

He said as many as five activities or visits are scheduled each day, many sponsored by Veterans organizations.

In addition to competing in the Veterans Bowl, Veterans at the Detroit VA received Valentines and comfort items and attended a service honoring four chaplains who gave their lives for others.

They also ate all the pizza and spaghetti they could handle at several dinners and Super Bowl parties.

"The enthusiasm these volunteers have for our Veterans is truly infectious," said Browning. "They influence staff and visitors alike as they honor and recognize our Veterans for the sacrifices they have made to preserve our freedom."

Older volunteer speaks to younger
Rippy with students before heading out to Medical Center floors to pass out comfort items.

Texas-Sized Hearts

Theresa Hill is used to giving generously. A volunteer at the North Texas VA Medical Center, she received the American Legion Auxiliary (ALA) State Volunteer of the Year Award... twice! She also received the ALA National Volunteer of the Year Award in 2007.

She started volunteering nine years ago because her father, brother, and husband were all Veterans.

"My favorite part is knowing I'm giving back a little to those who were willing to give of themselves for our country," said Hill.

A whole lot of Texans poured through the halls of the North Texas VA. Visitors included congressmen, bands, Girl Scout troops, school choirs, dance companies, news anchors, and even Miss Arlington and a slew of teenage beauty queens from across the state.

"I loved seeing all the happy faces getting all the attention we give on this special day," said J.D. Randolph, a Korean War Veteran and volunteer at the facility since 2001.

Although the Salute is an exciting time to be a volunteer, there's something about the day-to-day business of helping out that's special to Randolph. He says Veterans feel comfortable when he's the one guiding them through the health care system.

"The young 'Operation Enduring Freedom/Operation Iraqi Freedom Veterans' are happy to talk to another Veteran," Randolph said. "They know we've been through the same and they look to us for help. They always stop me in the hallway to say thanks."

He added, "If you volunteer, you get more out of the experience than the Veterans you help."

"I would say there's nothing more rewarding than giving of your time," said Hill. "There are so many different areas in the hospital that are in need."

To would-be volunteers, Hill says, "Please just try it once. I promise you'll want to come back!"

To learn how to volunteer for a VA facility, visit http://www.volunteer.va.gov/.

By Megan Tyson, VA Staff Writer

Related story: Veterans Celebrate Valentine's Day at Free Concerts

Related web sites:

Canandaigua VA Medical Center

John D. Dingell VA Medical Center (Detroit)

VA North Texas Health Care System