PHOTO CAPTION: J. White, proudly sporting a World War II-embroidered hat, eagerly awaits his numbers during the course of the game.
September 5, 2013
By T. Anthony Bell
RICHMOND (Sept. 5, 2013) -- The ambiance within the Sitter and Barfoot Veterans Care Center meeting room was tepid at best when a group of Fort Lee Soldiers arrived there on the morning of Aug. 27.
Representatives of the Better Opportunities for Single Soldiers program, which sponsors regular trips to the assisted-care facility, volunteer to visit residents as a part of the program's community service efforts.
As a way to honor their service and sacrifice, the Soldiers planned to converse with the veterans and engage them the best they could. Several games of bingo did just that, and what seemed lackluster in the beginning was alive and vibrant at its conclusion.
"It was really fun," said Pfc. Carol Pendergraph, a 54th Quartermaster Company mortuary affairs specialist, at the conclusion of her first visit to the facility. "I was really excited to come because we should be talking to our veterans more often. I love bingo, and this was a chance to do both at the same time."
The 11 Soldiers, all 20-somethings in the grades of E-5 and below, were attired in jeans and T-shirts and brought a degree of enthusiasm to the facility. The veterans, 13 men and women from all branches of the service, ranged in age from 63 to 97 and suffered from various ailments. Several were wheelchair bound.
Pendergraph, who delighted the residents with her cheerful nature and youthful braces, said she didn't know what to expect from her visit but felt good about being there.
"Talking to them is great, I've already found out so much about like three different people," she said smiling "-- where they've been, what branch they were in -- all sorts of stuff."
During the visit, each Soldier was paired with a veteran. They sat in a roughly 20-by-15-foot room with tables arranged in the shape of a horseshoe. Coffee and pastries awaited consumption on a table in the corner. A large window allowed the rays of a rising sun to beam into the room.
Some of the veterans were not talkative during the course of the event. A few sat hunched over and at least one used breathing equipment. Several laughed, joked and shared their military experiences. They were attentive and even invigorated by the Soldiers' presence. J. Moomau was one of them. A Navy veteran and one of the livelier residents, he laughed, joked and bragged about his bingo skills. He said he felt at home with the visitors.
"They're very, very good, and we enjoy them being here," he said of Soldiers. "It brings a lot of entertainment and a very welcome change of pace. You don't want to be bored out of your tree, which we would be if nothing ever happened."
Long-time resident and Navy veteran J. Morris would probably agree. A hefty man dressed in a red wool hat, red hoodie and a St. Louis Cardinals T-shirt, the octogenarian didn't say much during the course of the visit but said he enjoys the sights and sounds of youth.
"They're happy, young and very active," he said of the volunteers. "They're what we think about in terms of what we used to be."
Pfc. Kierra Loyd acknowledged that she knows how much interaction means to the elderly. She said she often tagged along with her mother to her job at a nursing home back in her hometown. This visit, however, allowed her to examine the military of old versus the new.
"You see how different the military was back then compared to how it is now," said the 19-year-old, "and hearing their stories, it's like 'wow' -- what if that was me back in the day. It gives you something to think about."
Justin Everson, an activities coordinator at Sitter and Barfoot, said the visits are quite beneficial to the residents.
"It provides an outside source (of engagement)," he said. "They see us every day, but when they see people from the outside who want to help, it brightens up their day."
The residents don't typically leave the facility unless they are going out with friends or family, said Everson, and because many have limited mobility, it can be difficult to get around within the facility. Everson said social activity is key to breaking the monotony of day-to-day living at the facility.
"It keeps them moving; it keeps them motivated; and it keeps them going," he said. "Just as if you were 20, 30 or 40-years-old and you communicate with people, it keeps you fresh and it encourages you to want to do more things."
As for the Soldiers, the visit reinforced notions about what it means to serve.
"The visit with the veterans opened up my eyes to how great the sacrifices of our service members really are," said Sgt. Ryan Gilboy, the BOSS president. "It was a great experience to be a part of the moments in that room while we all shared stories."
Sitter and Barfoot is a state-supported facility located on the campus of the McGuire Veterans Affairs Medical Center. It can accommodate 160 occupants in two skilled nursing care units and one 40-bed secure Alzheimer's dementia unit.
For more information about volunteer programs there, call (804) 371-8000.