In 2019 Judy Hennis became the American Legion Auxiliary Department of South Carolina VAVS liaison to the Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center in Charleston, S.C. Just a few months later, the past department president and member of American Legion Auxiliary Unit 178, Murrells Inlet was in the same situation of Legion Family members who volunteer at VA facilities across the nation: shut out of those facilities because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“We still volunteered. We just weren’t allowed inside,” said Hennis, noting that Auxiliary units made chest pillows for veterans recovering from heart or abdominal surgery, manufactured clear facemasks, put together food donations and then later assisted with vaccination clinics, among other efforts. But not being able to be inside the Charleston VAMC “was very hard. You become friends with the medical personnel, the workers at the VA. And it’s just an honor to be able to thank the veterans for their service. So it was a little isolating.”
But as vaccination numbers continued to climb, access to VA facilities was opened. It was a welcome change for Hennis, who recently joined American Legion Post 166 Historian Mike Thomas and Unit 166 President Gloria Evans Hill at the grand opening of the North Charleston VA Outpatient Clinic. The trio set up a table at the facility to welcome patients and hand out both hygiene and snack gift packs. Hennis also joined other Auxiliary members in April at the grand opening of the Myrtle Beach VA Outpatient Clinic, handing out the same gift packs.
“It was wonderful,” Hennis said. “It was like walking back into a family reunion. Just getting to say ‘hi, how are you? It’s good to see you again.’ It was great. It was just an honor to be there.”
For both Thomas and Hill, it was their first time volunteering at a VA facility. Thomas said the chance to assist the volunteer effort “was great. I was able to mingle with people, and talk with people coming in for tests or doctor visits. I was able to do it differently than when I was in their shoes. It was a great experience.
“When the people saw us and we’d welcome them, talk to them and offer them a goody bag, the response was just great. I think there were some people who very much appreciated that little gesture. I will do it again.”
Hill felt similar after attending the grand opening. “It was amazing. It really was amazing,” she said. “You just don’t realize how many people are in a bad way. Some of them were in wheelchairs. They had to have people let them off at the front door. It was very rewarding to see how we could help the people at the new clinic. It’s really awe-inspiring … to be able to help (the patients).”
Hennis said she plans to continue to reach out to other Auxiliary units about getting involved in volunteering at VA. She’s been able to increase the number of volunteers at the Ralph H. Johnson VAMC and surrounding clinics from six to around 25 Auxiliary members.
“That was my whole reason (for doing) the grand openings,” Hennis said. “I went to these local units just to let them get through the door and see who would be their contact person. Let them ask some questions. And when they saw everything, they’re all just very excited about getting started to volunteer. I couldn’t be happier that we’re getting those volunteers.”
If you’re an American Legion Family member who has regularly volunteered at VA facility and are now able to resume doing so, share with us how it feels to be back at it. Share your stories at www.Legiontown.org or email firstname.lastname@example.org.