Since World War I, the women of the American Legion Auxiliary have provided true mission outreach in the care and rehabilitation of VA Medical Center patients. Part one of this three-part series examines how the hearts and hands of ALA volunteers help make each patient’s stay more enjoyable and allow Medical Center staff to focus on patient care. “It is impossible to calculate the amount of caring and sharing that VAVS volunteers provide to veteran patients. VAVS volunteers are a priceless asset to the nation’s veterans and to the Department of Veterans Affairs. We are indebted to the American Legion Auxiliary for their work in serving our nation’s veterans.” — Laura B. Balun, Director of VA Voluntary Services DURING WORLD WAR II, it was determined that a coordinated volunteer effort was needed to maximize the impact of dedicated individuals in service organizations such as the Auxiliary. This need developed into a structured volunteer program providing aid and assistance to members of the armed forces injured in war. Since these volunteers had focused specifically on aiding and assisting active-duty service members during times of war, it was only natural that during peacetime, they focus their time, skill, and effort caring for a new group of veterans. On April 8, 1946, representatives of several Veterans Service Organizations, including the American Legion Auxiliary, met in Washington, D.C., with the Assistant Administrator for Special Services. Before the meeting concluded, their first VA Voluntary Service (VAVS) Advisory Committee was formed. The ALA was at their table in the beginning and has held a prominent seat since. THE NEED Today, VAVS is one of the ALA’s cornerstone programs. The care, concern, and compassion we show our veterans in VA Medical Centers contribute substantially to the welfare of the patients and their families. It’s needed now more than ever. We are a nation at war, with veterans returning from combat who need our help. As our most steadfast Auxiliary VAVS volunteers begin to age, the need to recruit new volunteers is essential. Last year, united by its philosophy of Service Not Self, the American Legion Auxiliary contributed more than 6.5 million volunteer hours in service to veterans, with more than 3.5 million hours in direct service to veterans. At the 66th Annual VAVS National Advisory Committee Meeting last year, Robert A. Petzel, Under Secretary for the Veterans Health Administration said: “Volunteers are a key part of every one of our VAMC treatment teams because, while VA provides the highest quality health care possible, VA volunteers provide a special human connection that elevates our services and programs to a higher level.” THE EXPECTATIONS The VAVS program calls for a higher level of commitment from its volunteers than other service programs in the American Legion Auxiliary. It is not generally set up for onetime volunteer opportunities. VAVS volunteers are asked and expected to make and accept a regularly scheduled assignment at a location consistent from week to week. Volunteer assignments vary by facility. The VA Medical Center system is constantly changing, providing expanded medical care to a changing type of veteran. Women veterans are being cared for more than ever in VA Medical Centers, and advanced medical care means veterans returning from combat with injuries that previously would have been life ending can now be treated. VAVS volunteers are expected to participate in a thorough screening process and orientation for the safety of VA patients, volunteers, and staff. Each VA medical facility has a unique orientation which typically involves touring the facility and training on patient interactions and safety. HOW IT WORKS Each volunteer is entered into the Voluntary Service System (VSS), the volunteers’ permanent record of service, which allows them to sign in and out for shifts using the VSS timekeeping package. The system records volunteer hours for many reasons, including tracking personal recognition milestones and crediting the American Legion Auxiliary for volunteer service hours. Signing in and out also provides protection from lawsuits should something happen during the course of an assignment. Volunteers acting under the scope of their assignment are protected by the Federal Tort Claims Act. A background check is required of all volunteers. Depending on the assignment, you may be fingerprinted and photographed for an ID and given a tuberculosis test. Some positions require an extensive background check and special training for volunteers accessing the VA’s computer system. Each volunteer also receives training on the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, which protects veterans’ personal information under federal law. To ensure that veterans, volunteers and staff are medically safe, each potential volunteer must receive a health screening. The screening required varies by assignment and facility. MEET TWO AUXILIARY MEMBERS LIVING THE MISSION Whether you’re new to the American Legion Auxiliary or have been serving our organization for many years, these stories of Auxiliary VAVS volunteers recognized by the Veterans Administration for their dedicated service are sure to inspire you and make you proud to be kindred spirits in a commitment to Service Not Self. ALMA ZELLER Unit 67, Florida Alma Zeller of Miami Beach was named 2011 Miami Healthcare System Volunteer of the Year in recognition of her 17,500 hours of service in VA Medical Centers. She began her VAVS service in the office, writing fundraising letters and soliciting donations for merchandise. She is currently the ALA Representative at the Miami VA Medical Center where she helps recruit and train volunteers and organizes the books, magazines, and clothes donated by local Auxiliary units for distribution. Zeller averages about 30 volunteer hours per week and says Mondays are her “big days.” She runs Monday Night Bingo at the hospital, which means she typically arrives at 6:30 a.m. and doesn’t leave until after 8:30 p.m. She prefers to go to the fourth floor, which is a locked ward caring for patients with PTSD and various addictions. “These guys and gals don’t get a lot of visitors, so I am always happy to go up and visit with them,” she said. “They get $1 for every game they win, and I always try to bring snacks they like and leave a few extra snacks for later. They are always so appreciative.” Zeller has been a member of the Auxiliary since 1973. She is eligible for service through her late husband, Joseph W. Zeller, who served in the Army in World War II, Korea, and Vietnam. Her son, Wayne Zeller, is a retired Air Force veteran, and her other son, Jeff, is a retired firefighter/ paramedic. Zeller has been serving in VA hospitals for more than 30 years, and at 81, she has no plans to slow down anytime soon. “It keeps me occupied, and I love what I am doing. That’s the epitome of a good life – to do what you love.” RUTH WHEELER Unit 224, Massachusetts American Legion Auxiliary member Ruth Wheeler is the second-longest serving volunteer in the VA system and the longest serving VA volunteer in New England. She was honored in April by the VA Central Western Massachusetts Healthcare System for her 60 continuous years of service. In that time, she has accumulated nearly 20,000 volunteer hours, equivalent to 10 years of full-time work. Every new enrolled veteran in VA health care in central and western Massachusetts receives a package that Wheeler builds and mails to them. Her VA colleagues estimate Wheeler prepares at least 32,000 mailings a year. Born in Ashfield, Mass., Wheeler lived in Shelburne Falls and then later moved to Northampton where she resides today. Her work with the VA started in high school as a way to honor her father, Raymond L. Wheeler, who was in the U.S. Army Cavalry. “My father was a World War I veteran, and my mother worked for the American Legion Auxiliary, so I joined the Auxiliary too,” she said. Immediately after World War II, when the hospital had 1,200 patients in residence, Wheeler said she helped organize three dances a year for veterans. “For over 60 years, Ruth L. Wheeler has been an unbelievably dedicated volunteer to our VA community in Massachusetts,” said Anne Murray, Volunteer Services Officer. “We – her VA friends – are humbled every day by her sense of service, her love and affection for the veterans.” “Ruth is amazing,” Murray said. “She’s here four days a week like clockwork, 8 to 4:30, but she’ll work extra days if we need help with anything. Sometimes I have to say to her, ‘You do know you’re a volunteer, right?’” Today, at 81, Wheeler works primarily on veteran correspondence, sending benefits renewals, pre-registrations, and information catalogs. “I like being involved in something; it keeps me busy,” she said. “Everybody’s friendly, and there’s always something to do. And it makes you feel good helping out the veterans.” To learn more about volunteering in a VA facility, download the Veterans Affairs & Rehabilitation: A Guide for Volunteers at www.ALAforVeterans.org. FIND YOUR FIT IN VETERANS AFFAIRS VOLUNTARY SERVICES AN OVERVIEW OF VA MEDICAL CENTERS National VAVS Representative Appointed by the ALA national president, this individual represents the American Legion Auxiliary on the National VA Advisory Committee for Voluntary Services. This person monitors policy and personnel changes within the VA System that may affect the VAVS program and provides guidance and information to representatives and departments. ALA Department VAMC Director This volunteer has direct responsibility for the supervision of representatives in her department, developing and maintaining close working relationships with VAMC directors, and having a clear understanding of programs sponsored by units on the local level through periodic facility visits. She will also direct volunteer recruitment and retention initiatives. ALA VAVS Representative These individuals form a close working relationship with the VAMC director and coordinate the recruitment and training of new volunteers choosing to represent the ALA at that facility. They work closely with ALA volunteers at their VAMC, communicating opportunities, soliciting feedback, mediating conflict and handling other volunteer needs. ALA VAVS Deputy Representative The deputy representative also serves as a liaison between the ALA department and a specific VAMC, assisting with ALA volunteer recruitment, training, and communication. In addition, they attend VAVS Advisory Committee Meetings and exercise voting privileges at VA representative meetings in the absence of the ALA VAVS Representative or Associate Representative. VOLUNTEER OPPORTUNITIES FOR EVERYONE AT EVERY AGE VAMC Volunteers (Senior Members) VA Medical Center volunteers are essential to the successful operation of any VAMC program. These volunteers supplement the work of the Medical Center staff filling key roles and making valuable contributions that enhance focus on patient care. They provide compassion to veteran health care. VolunTeens (Up to Age 18) In 1959, the ALA created what is now known as the VolunTeen program. Open to students 18 and under who are Junior members of the ALA, Sons of The American Legion, and nonaffiliated youth, these young people have an opportunity to volunteer in a VAMC or work with a senior volunteer in Field Service. Non-ALA Member Volunteers Non-ALA members are welcome to become VAMC volunteers having their hours counted to the benefit of the Auxiliary. If you have a friend who is not eligible for ALA membership but would like to volunteer with you, by all means encourage her to join you in serving our veterans and in honoring their service to our country. Field and/or Home Service Volunteers Field Service includes any service provided to a sick or injured veteran outside a VAMC, assisting with a veteran’s burial, or gravesite upkeep. Home Service involves volunteering your time sewing, doing computer research, or shopping for active-duty military/ veterans and/or their families who are not related to you.
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