When Walter Finley heard he'd been selected as The American Legion's Veterans Affairs Volunteer Services (VAVS) Worker of the Year for 2012, he did a double take.
"I couldn't believe it," said Finley, a member of Maj. James A. McKenna Post 797 on New York's Long Island. "I said, ‘I'm not playing the lottery anymore, because I just hit it.'"
Finley has volunteered for VA's New York Harbor Healthcare System since 2007, donating nearly 2,500 hours a year at its veterans-run Clubhouse, a psychosocial activities center. At 11:30 a.m. every Wednesday, Finley serves warm meals he's prepared with other volunteers to nearly 40 veterans. "It may be the only hot meal they eat all week," he says.
Finley's culinary talents stem from his days as a chef at the United Nations, where he learned to cook with fresh ingredients – something he enjoys doing at the Clubhouse. Meals cost $3, and veterans can purchase more than one to take home. Those who aren't able to pay for meals repay the Clubhouse by cleaning dishes or tables.
"Walter helps carry out my mission of running the Clubhouse like a family with family meals," says Patricia Johnson, a psychology technician at the Clubhouse. "We want the veterans to feel good, and the meals are conducive to that because they keep the environment very friendly, comfortable and laid-back."
Through the weekly meals, Finley has helped secure donations of food, clothing, toiletries, electronics, and tickets to sporting events and Broadway shows. "It's not one person working for our veterans," he says. "It's everyone. It's the small things that make a big difference."
Finley also oversees the Clubhouse's recreational activities, including crafts, puzzles, books, music and other entertainment. He helps veterans apply for their benefits, and keeps the Clubhouse clean, organized and safe.
"This is better than work," Finley says. "You don't have to be here – you want to be here." That commitment resulted in his nomination for the Legion's VAVS Worker of the Year Award.
"I thought he (Finley) was an individual whose contributions to this facility in particular were substantial enough, incredible enough, that other people should see exactly what he does for us," says Mike Brennan, assistant chief of volunteer services at New York Harbor VA. "What he's doing isn't casual anymore. I told him, ‘This is formal, this is real, and you're making a difference.'"
Clearly, there's no place Finley would rather be.
"I love what I do," he says, "and as long as the veterans are here, I'm here."