The Orlando VA Medical Center at Lake Nona is creating a lot of excitement around the city. As one of only 153 VA hospitals in the country, with a 72-bed inpatient facility and a 120-bed nursing home, it is bringing many jobs to the area. Even so, the focus is on serving the veteran community, and a big part of that effort is played by volunteers.
One of those individuals is Johnnie Swigart who spends up to 46 hours a week transporting veterans to and from medical appointments in a van provided by the Disabled American Veterans organization. Because Swigart served with the U.S. Army in Vietnam, he can relate to what returning combat veterans go through. “There’s a real sense of camaraderie among the volunteers and the vets that prevents any of us from feeling alone,” he says. “It’s definitely a two-way street.”
Doug Shouse, acting director of volunteer services at the Orlando VA underscores the importance of the volunteers. “With the VA hospital inpatient facility at Lake Nona due to open in January 2016, we are actively recruiting volunteers, especially drivers,” he says, adding, “The vets served our country. Now it’s our turn to serve them. With Veterans Day coming up November 11, we are especially mindful.”
But the need for volunteers isn’t limited to drivers.
Rachel Nicholls, who traveled the world with the U.S. Navy for 20 years, works in the main office of Volunteers Services as a receptionist and administrative assistant. What made her decide to volunteer? “When my sister became ill, the VA — Veterans Administration — bent over backwards taking care of her until she passed away,” she says. “The people there were supportive of both of us, and I can’t thank them enough. Now the VA is like family to me.”
Orlando VA Medical Center Outreach Coordinator Fanita Jackson was quick to praise Nicholls and other volunteers. But it isn’t just vets who give their time there. “All members of the community are welcome for however many hours they can give,” she says. “In fact, young people come during the summer; retirees, stay-at-home mothers, even groups from the VFW and other organizations come and serve.”
And volunteer services span the gamut. Jose Aulet who assists at the concierge desk in the lobby, greets then directs patients to their appointments or transports them by wheelchair. “As their first line of contact, we need to make sure that the vets feel valued,” he says.
Aulet, who served with the U.S. Navy, started volunteering in December 2014. “Giving to the veterans is a privilege and honor,” he says. “We help in any way we can, including providing tours for VIPs, newly arrived medical personnel and even the general public.”