By GREG JORDAN
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
When it was time to cut the ribbon for the newly renovated lobby at Bluefield Regional Medical Center, the hospital’s CEO turned to the front desk and dedicated the lobby to a special group of people, the hospital’s volunteers.
Volunteers are often the first people that patients and their families meet when they arrive at the hospital. Working in many different departments, volunteers run errands, answer telephones, direct visitors through the hospital’s maze of corridors, and offer a sympathetic ear and compassion of times of distress.
One of the longest-serving volunteers, Jenny Leffel, joined the volunteers when the hospital’s present location was constructed.
“I started in July 1979,” she recalled. “They opened in June of 1979, and I came over for the open house. There were volunteers for the old Bluefield Sanitarium there. They were called ‘gray ladies’, I think, and they were showing people around and giving directions, and I thought, ‘you know, that sounds like something I would like to do.’”
Leffel was about to get some free time, and she wanted to use it in a meaningful way.
“My youngest child was starting junior high school, and I was thinking, ‘you know, I’ve got time I can give back to the community,” she said. “That’s when I thought how ironic it was last night that we had the rededication, the grand opening of the new entrance out here and everything. We’ve come full circle, and I’m hoping that some people who came to the open house will see the volunteers and think. ‘That might be something I’d like to do.’”
Leffel looked to her fellow volunteer, Beverly Ratcliff, who started volunteering after her daughter started kindergarten more than 20 years ago. Now Leffel thinks of Ratcliff’s daughter as her granddaughter.
“I’ve watched her grow up through junior high and high school, and graduate college. I even went to North Carolina to see her daughter marry, so we’re just one big family,” Leffel said. “I think of the volunteers as my extended family, so I would encourage anyone who had four hours a week to give or eight hours a week to live to do this.”
Ratcliff explained why she had kept volunteering at the hospital for so many years.
“It’s just such a good experience,” she said. “You’re giving back to the community, you’re doing a service. People come in from places like McDowell County, and this is a big hospital to them. They don’t know where to go, so if I see some who looks like they’re lost, they’ll ask me, and a lot of times I will take them if they’re an older person or I give directions.”
“We work in the gift shop, we answer the telephone, people call in about a patient and we connect them,” Ratcliff said. “We deliver flowers, get the mail, and deliver mail to their rooms. In year past we used to take people when we were up on the second floor when we had Admitting (Department) there. We used to take the patients out. We have designated areas that do a lot of that stuff. Now I just work in the gift shop and the front desk.”
Volunteer Manager Emily Wyrick, an employee of BRMC, said the volunteers serve every part of the hospital and tries to cross train them for different duties.
“If an area is short, somebody else can fill in. When they come in, I usually give them their choice of what department they want to go into, what is available,” Wyrick said. “We’ll let them work with that department, and if they’re happy in that department, they’ll usually stay in that department. If they want to try another department, they’re open to it. I’ll let them have their choice. However, with the ones that we use at the gift department and the front desk, it helps tremendously that they know both departments because if helps if we have to change them out.”
Leffel started her volunteer career at the gift shop, but she later asked if she could try another department. When a new opportunity came up, she asked the hospital’s first volunteer manager, Phyllis Walker, if she could transfer.
“I was in the front to go into outpatient service when we first started,” she said. “I asked Phyllis if I could go into outpatient, and I loved it. I started out in the gift shop and I ended up back in the gift shop.”
Last year, the women and men among the 28 active volunteers worked a total of 7,575 hours, Wyrick said.
Beverly Ratcliff checked a service pin on her blouse. It showed that she had worked a total of 10,150 hours, the equivalent of five years, said Rebekah Ritter, director of marketing and public relations. The average person with a full-time job works 2,080 hours a year, she added.
“That’s not counting what they do for their church,” Ritter said of the volunteers. Arranging interviews meant working with volunteers who had full schedules including activities outside the hospital.
There are many meaningful things to do in the community if people will look for them and step forward to do the work, Leffel said.
“These people who say they’re bored, get up and do something for somebody else, and you won’t be having these aches and pains,” Leffel said. “You don’t have time to get sick.”
Besides running errands and guiding visitors, the volunteers help patients and their families by being sympathetic companions during times of worry.
“It’s rewarding,” Ratcliff said. “People come in, mainly in the gift shop, they’ll tell me what’s going on in their life. They’ll even ask us if we’ll pray for them.”
“That’s another thing,” Leffel agreed. “The nurses and the staff don’t have time to sit down and listen to someone, and when you come in and you’ve got a sick patient here, and you’re worry and you sit here for days on end with a patient. They’re just worn out, and they need someone to just talk to them and listen. There’s so many people, and so many people have said, ‘Thank you. You don’t know just how much that meant to me for you to take time to listen.’ They just need someone to talk to, and you have time to listen.”
“I’ve had people come back to me a year later, and ask me, ‘Do you remember when I asked you to pray for me?’” Ratcliff said. “That just makes you feel good when somebody comes back and says good things like that.”
Now the long-time volunteers are preparing to share their skills and experiences with a new generation of volunteers. Junior volunteers from area high schools will begin working alongside their senior counterparts after schools close for summer break, Wyrick said. Many of the junior volunteers, ranging from 14 to 18 years old, earn class credit for their service. Sometimes the students are able to teach their elders a few things, too.
“It’s also a good learning experience for us older ones” Leffel said. “I want you to know that I learned to do Sukuko. I had this one little girl who had her book at the front desk, and I said, ‘Oh, I could never learn that.’ And she said, “Oh, sure you can.’ And so I watched her and I got interested in that, and now I have to do at least three or four or five a day. I am hooked!”
“It is a wonderful experience,” Wyrick said. “I’ve had juniors come in here, and they can be so quiet and shy, but by the time they have left here, they’re not so quiet and shy. It’s good because they have such a sense of responsibility. They learn from the seniors the importance of manner and the importance of hard work, and about putting back into the community.”
For many of the junior volunteers, serving at BRMC is their first job.
“It gives them the responsibilities of having to be here at a certain time and learning how that certain department works,” Wyrick said.
Leffel left the hospital soon after the interview, and Ratcliff returned to the gift shop. There were things to do and people to help.�