The VA Illiana Health Care System in Danville, Ill., depends heavily on goodwill volunteers like Patti Williamson, who also serves on the American Legion Auxiliary’s national Veterans Affairs & Rehabilitation Committee.
“A friend of mine, the ALA department president, mentioned to me that the woman filling the role of Veterans Affairs & Rehabilitation chairman quit, and she couldn’t find anyone to do it,” said Williamson, on how she became a VA medical center volunteer. Williamson, an ALA member for 21 years at the time, told her friend, “I’ll finish out the term and serve the following year, and then we’ll worry about finding someone.” Williamson has served as ALA chairman and a VA medical center volunteer for five years now.
I walked into the VA in Danville and fell in love,” she said. “It felt right from the minute I walked in. The veterans, how appreciative they are, and knowing you have that power to change someone’s life—that’s what keeps me going back.
Williamson learned quickly to advocate for veterans by asking what they needed. “The VA can’t solicit donations from any business, so I make sure I ask the Chief of Voluntary Services or the therapists if they need anything for their veterans,” she said. During the holidays, veterans like to get hot chocolate after they venture out to see the Christmas lights. Williamson and other volunteers secure gift cards from a local fast-food restaurant so the veterans can enjoy that treat.
And Williamson loves the look in veterans’ eyes when she is able to solve a problem for them. “Right before I started at the VA,” she said, “I heard an American Legion Auxiliary member from Arlington, Virginia, talk about Buddy Baskets. So, I asked HUD VASH (Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing) if they’d like to have them, and, of course, they did. I remember we had a lunch and one of the guys knew he was going to get the first Buddy Basket. He stood at the end of the table the whole two hours to make sure no one messed with his basket.”
When the VA houses someone, they receive a $25 voucher. That doesn’t come close to covering their needs. Williamson and the volunteer team try to provide bedding, pots and pans, and other essentials. “They love those Buddy Baskets. It’s such a nice boost that comes to them as a gift,” she shared.
Preparations for Williamson’s volunteer shift actually begin the day before. “I pack the car with all the supplies I’ve shopped for and donations I’ve gathered that I plan to take with me the next day.” The next morning she’s up before dawn to get her own chores completed before the hour-long drive to the VA. Once she arrives, she meets other volunteers who help her put the supplies onto shelves, organize them, and then fill the orders for the wards.
“Everyone thinks you have to have a huge block of time to volunteer, but you can make such a difference in little amount of time,” Williamson said. “You just have to go! Don’t wait until you retire or your kids are grown. Start donating your time now, and suddenly your life will flow around it. I’ve learned you make time for what is most important.”