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 When Veterans are Family

A volunteer coordinator shares what most people don’t see about working with America’s heroes.

 

Chris Haugen has never served in the armed services, but every day she dedicates herself to those who have. As volunteer coordinator at the Oregon Veterans Home in The Dalles, Oregon, she not only leads recreation activities for residents but coordinates outside volunteers who want to share their time and energy. 
 
Growing up in a family of veterans, including her brother, father, uncles, cousins, and grandfather, she knows personally what having a veteran in the family is all about. 

“Having heard the different stories about their time in the service, whether they are serious stories or funny, that gives me more insight into the different men and women that are here as residents,” says Haugen.  “I can kind of say, yes, OK, I’ve heard this type of thing before.”

All in the Family

Like so many who love working in the long term and post-acute care profession, Haugen got her start early. Her mother was a skilled nursing center nurse and brought her to work for the first time at the age of eight. As a young girl, Haugen would visit the residents and help with activities like bingo. As a young adult, she took her first job in the activities department and never looked elsewhere. “When I began to work in that environment, I had enough experience to jump right in,” she says. 

Haugen accepted a position at Oregon Veterans Home in 2005 and spent the next 13 years honing her skills at being what many would call a jack of all trades. As volunteer coordinator working in the activities department, Haugen is part manager, part teacher, and part entertainer. 

“It’s really about making sure that everybody has a good day,” she says. “That’s our whole point in being here—making sure that everyone is comfortable and content.” 

While that sometimes means throwing a birthday party, catching up one on one with a resident, or taking a group for a walk outside, it can also mean helping outside volunteers take the starring role.  

Volunteers that Shine

“It’s always interesting the types of people that come in to share their time,” she says. “They want to give back, whether it’s: ‘I want to come in for a few hours and help or it’s I want to come in every week and call bingo.’” 

Take the holidays season, for example. It’s a time of year that is so important that planning starts a year in advance. “Christmas Day is not just one day for us, it’s the whole month,” says Haugen. “We start planning for the next Christmas the day after Christmas.” 

A number of outside groups like schools and military organizations ask to bring residents gifts every year, Haugen says. One group “adopts” residents that do not have family in the area. “These groups will ask for 10 to 15 residents and what kinds of things they like,” says Haugen. 

Then, they present all these items for them on Christmas Day.

Another group has been bringing every resident in the building gifts for the past 10 years. During the first few years, staff and volunteers spent time figuring out how to coordinate the delivery of the gifts in an optimal way, but the following years were easier, with Haugen and other staff working it down to a science.  

To see such acts of kindness is something inspiring. “There are so many people out there that are so willing to give of their time, whether it’s for a couple of days or during the whole year,” she says. “It’s amazing, and people don’t always see that. But working here, I definitely do.”

The Family Stone

When asked about the qualities that make a volunteer coordinator serving veterans successful, Haugen points to patriotism, empathy, and a having good moral compass. “I credit my parents for giving me the tools I needed, and to be able to confront any issue head on,” Haugen says. 

She sees these same qualities at work in her own family. Her two children—a 16-year-old son who volunteers at the center and a 17-year-old daughter who also works in the recreation department—have a longstanding involvement with the residents. Her husband, a certified nurse assistant and medication aide, also works at the center and makes a special point to share things with residents, like food, even on days off. 

“Being able to share our kids with the residents—that’s very personal for us,” says Haugen. “They have grown up here in the nursing home, and a lot of the residents have seen them grow up and have the personal investment with the children.” 

The two families—Haugen’s immediate family and the “family” of residents and staff at Oregon Veterans Home—often mix to become one. While many residents have family nearby, some do not, and that’s when the staff and volunteers become one family. 

And with this broader family comes a sharing of experiences. It’s not always just about hearing the residents’ experiences, says Haugen. “Sometimes it feels like work, but sometimes it doesn’t. The residents want to hear about your vacation or something that happened with you personally,” she says. “It’s nice to be able to go to work and you can share that with people.” 

Words of Wisdom

For first-timer activity professionals, Haugen says the best advice is to relax. “Embrace it and not worry about being the center of attention because you will be the center of attention,” she says. “Don’t worry about embarrassing yourself, because that will happen. All you have to do is have fun, because if you’re having fun, people will see that and will react to it.”

Another piece of advice is to take time to listen to the amazing experiences of veterans. “For World War II veterans, the label they were given—the greatest generation—is accurate. They’ve always amazed me,” says Haugen.

The Korean War and Vietnam War veterans and all others are also amazing, she says. “They have seen and had to experienced things that no one really should have to. They have things to tell you, and these people deserve our respect.” 
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