I did something on Christmas morning I’ve never done before. I volunteered to sing Christmas carols to hospitalized veterans at the Palo Alto Veterans Administration Hospital. The experience was so uplifting I’ll hold the memory in my heart forever.
I joined about 150 other volunteers in the hospital auditorium at 9 am to listen to Tom McCarthy’s orientation about the morning’s program. Tom is the lead recreation therapist for the spinal cord injury center at the hospital. He has been coordinating this Christmas Day event for 30 years. The volunteers ranged in age from high school students to senior citizens and included several veterans from different branches of the service.
I spotted my young friend, Allison, holding an African drum and went over to greet her. She was with her twin sister, mother, aunt and uncle who have all been volunteering on Christmas Day for the past two years. I was grateful to Allison for telling me about this volunteer opportunity since I didn’t have any plans for Christmas.
Tom divided the volunteers into two groups—one-third were assigned to visit the mental health wards, while the larger group visited the hospital rooms. Each group was escorted by a hospital staff person, a song leader, and a Santa Claus who pushed a shopping cart filled with gift bags for the veterans.
I flipped through the song book I’d been given and recognized all of the two dozen Christmas carols. I learned them as a Girl Scout and never forgot them. My group of 30 volunteers included four musical instruments: a guitar, a tambourine, a drum, and a trumpet played by a teenage girl. As we walked through several corridors, we warmed up our voices and got into the spirit by singing “Jingle Bells.”
At our first stop, we crowded into a recreation room and serenaded half a dozen men. One of the patients standing beside the trumpet player reached for her trumpet. To my amazement she handed it to him. He put the trumpet to his lips and tentatively fingered the valves. At first, there was just a rush of air and then he began playing, right on key, to “The First Noel.” As I watched, I felt tears rolling down my cheeks. I was deeply touched by the girl’s kind gesture and the look of pride and gratitude on the man’s face when he handed back her trumpet.
In every room we visited, the volunteers sat beside patients sharing their song sheets and thanking them for their service to our country.
We also visited patients who were recovering from surgery at the Fisher House. One of the volunteers explained that the Fisher House program was funded by philanthropists Zachary and Elizabeth Fisher, who wanted to provide affordable temporary housing for veteran families facing a medical crisis.
In 1990, Mr. and Mrs. Fisher donated more than $20 million to the construction of comfort homes for families of hospitalized military personnel. Twenty-nine Fisher Houses now operate at 17 military bases and at five Department of Veterans Affairs medical centers throughout the nation. More than 183,000 days of lodging are provided by Fisher Houses every year, saving families an estimated $5 million annually. Since the program’s inception, more than 50,000 families have stayed in Fisher Houses.
Two men and their wives came into the living room to listen to us sing. I walked over and stood beside one of the patients who had a tracheotomy tube in his throat. Once again, I was astonished as he began singing along to “Silent Night.” Afterward, he told me that he had just completed chemotherapy and radiation treatments for esophageal cancer and was starting to get his voice back.
By the time we finished singing it was after 1 pm. I was so exhilarated from all of the wonderful camaraderie, I sang “Feliz Navidad” all the way home. I plan to volunteer again next year and may even visit some of the patients during the year. Tom McCarthy told us that there are hospitalized veterans all over our country who would love to have a visitor come and spend an hour with them.
If you’d like to help, click on this link for volunteer opportunities to give back to our veterans.