Central Peninsula Hospital Auxiliary volunteer Ruth Acopan, center, accepts a donation of prayer shawls from Debra Johansen, left, as fellow volunteer Pauline Goecke fields a phone call in the hospital's gift shop last week.
A middle-aged woman of Asian de scent arrives at the entrance of the new Mountain Tower building of Central Peninsula Hospital.
She has an appointment in radiology, but she doesn't know how to get there.
"Follow me," says Kreta Thompson, a volunteer member of the hospital auxiliary, assigned to the information desk in the front lobby on this day.
Offering a friendly smile and a comforting demeanor, Thompson guides the patient through the somewhat confusing maze of hallways leading toward the Radiology Department.
"Have you been here before?" asks Thompson.
"Oh, yes, in the old building," says the patient, through remnants of a fading accent.
Despite the public information effort to habituate employees and patients to referring to the new building, which opened last fall, as Mountain Tower and the old building as the River Pavillion, the "old building-new building" monikers hang on.
As the patient and volunteer ambled down the zigzagging corridors exchanging light conversation and arrived outside the administration executive offices, the patient expressed a feeling of familiarity, saying, "Oh, this is the old building."
Now she was getting her heading, but the volunteer remained with her nonetheless, making sure she reached her destination.
The friendliness of hospital staff members, the opportunity to help patients who need a hand and the filling of an inner calling to give back are all given as reasons for volunteering at the Soldotna hospital.
While some have just begun offering their help this year, others have been around off and on since day one, 40 years ago when the hospital auxiliary program got its start.
The volunteers are the 60-ish greeters at the front entrance of the new Mountain Tower structure, which opened last fall; the 70-ish giftshop clerks in the auxiliary's Care Package; the 66-year-old man helping with warehouse orders in Purchasing; and the teens snapping a photo of a newborn or entering data into a computer.
Thompson, who has been volunteering at the hospital since April, said it's something she's wanted to do for several years.
"I want to make people feel comfortable and encourage them when they come in ... make it easier for them," she said.
"A lot (of patients) are confused with the new building, and the doctors coming down from Anchorage are now down across from (Obstetrics)," she said.
While sitting at the information desk near the hospital entrance, Thompson said volunteers watch as patients arrive, and if it appears they need assistance getting out of their cars or walking to the door, the volunteer will go outside and meet them with a wheelchair.
"We take them to wherever they need to go," she said.
When asked if she has any specialized training or unusual qualifications to perform her duties, Thompson, who volunteers from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. every Tuesday, said she ran a child care service in Kenai for 33 years.
Also, she said, when her own daughter was in first grade, she was hospitalized in Intensive Care in an Anchorage hospital.
"I know what it's like to have someone who needs care," she said, adding, "I like to be of service to people. I like helping people, and I like the staff here."
Not all volunteer work is as obvious as the folks staffing the information desk.
"Basically I baked cookies for the bake sales," said Anna Wheeler, of her early days at the Soldotna hospital.
Forty years ago, Wheeler's husband, Gene, was the hospital's chief administrator.
"We were trying to raise money to finish the new hospital," she said, adding that bake sales were a frequent fundraising event.
When asked what type of cookies she baked, Wheeler said, "Oatmeal's my favorite."
Though she does not have a particularly secret recipe for here cookies she uses the one printed on the side of the oatmeal box she said she does usually toss in some raisins.
A registered nurse for 22 years prior to her retirement in 1992, Wheeler is back volunteering at CPH whenever the hospital auxiliary calls.
These days she works the front desk on Wednesdays, the day the van from the Cooper Landing Senior Center makes the run to Soldotna. Wheeler, 79, and her husband Gene, 76, reside in the Cooper Landing senior housing complex.
She also works in the waiting room, getting cookies and coffee for patients and their companions, taking messages and letting people know how their relatives are doing, she said.
One of the reasons Wheeler is back in service at the hospital is because her husband recently had two heart attacks and was hospitalized at CPH.
"They take good care of him, and we appreciate it," she said.
Her advice to newcomers considering volunteering at CPH is: "Follow your heart."
She plans to volunteer "until they don't need me anymore."
With virtually no patient contact, Bill Wilson is involved with yet another aspect of hospital volunteerism.
"I volunteer in Materials Management," Wilson said. "I pull things off the (warehouse) shelves for the different departments in the hospital.
"Usually I do Pharmacy, ER, Oncology, Intensive Care and Med-Surg," he said.
His wife, Lynette, also belongs to the hospital auxiliary, sewing baskets for patients, walking patients through the therapeutic labyrinth and assisting with clerical work.
"I like it pretty well," he said. "The people I work with downstairs (in Materials Management) are very helpful.
"It's good to give back a little instead of taking," he said.
A good number of the hospital auxiliary members work in the Care Package, the hospital's gift shop, where care is not only given, but cares are also taken away.
"If nothing else, I have a sense of humor," said JoAnn Hanson. "You need that."
Hanson began volunteering at the front desk three years ago, but after breaking a leg in a winter fall, she switched to the Care Package assignment.
"I really enjoy meeting people ... the interaction with people," she said, recalling visits this past summer with people from Hawaii and Germany.
Though she does not have retail sales experience, Hanson did work in a hospital setting, serving as a billing clerk in claims for South Peninsula Hospital for eight years when she lived in Homer and Anchor Point.
As a volunteer, the training she has received includes "the usual stuff for working in a hospital watch for needles and so forth," she said. With no retail experience, and strictly on-the-job training, Ruth Kataiva, 79, has been volunteering in the gift shop five or six years and now does most of the ordering. She also participated in a buying trip last year, attending a trade show in Seattle.
"I love it," she said. "You meet a lot of nice people.
"A good part is the employees; you also have some patients and people who come to visit patients," she said. "The people who work here are like a big family."
Hospital employees feel much the same about the volunteers, often stopping in the Care Package for a visit with the auxiliary members to take their minds off the trials of working in health care.
The Care Package, which is operated as a business venture of the hospital auxiliary, uses any profits to pay for scholarships for students planning to go into the medical field, according to Kataiva.
"The auxiliary gives one four-year scholarship or sometimes four scholarships," said the nine-year veteran of the volunteer force.
"It's good therapy," she said of working one day a week in the gift shop. "It keeps your mind alert. You're out with people and you're working with numbers."
The gift shop provides about 90 percent of the auxiliary's income, which provides reading glasses, comfort blankets, quilts and pillows in addition to the scholarships. It also helps purchase the uniform smocks worn by the volunteers. As many as 75 volunteers fill 35 shifts at the hospital every week.
When not in the shop, Kataiva is busy sewing for the Emergency Department and for Pediatrics.
"I sew the stuffed cats for ED 50 at a time," she said, describing the 15-inch-tall fabric cats with embroidered eyes and noses, given to young patients and to older folks who just need something to hold onto.
"I also make baby quilts for Peds," she said.
Besides enjoying working with customers in the gift shop, Kataiva said she has developed "some pretty good friendships with the other volunteers."
She plans to continue until she can't volunteer anymore, she said.
Phil Hermanek can be reached at email@example.com.
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