OGDENSBURG At 8:30 a.m. outside Centennial Terrace, four members of the Amvets Post 1997 Volunteers for American Veterans board a school bus for the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Syracuse.
We usually have about 10 or 11 volunteers when we go on Wednesdays, but Sundays are hard for some of our members, said Volunteers for American Veterans coordinator Susan Rupert.
Cracking jokes and telling stories, they travel for 2½ hours each way for a simple reason: to help hospitalized veterans feel a little better.
Its a long trip, and we usually only spend an hour and half there, but its the trip most of our veterans have to take just to see a doctor, said Mrs. Rupert.
Arriving at the hospital, they waste no time, unloading four trays of hot food, a big cake, games and karaoke equipment.
We have a system, volunteer Michael Sharland said.
Each monthly visit to the Syracuse VA hospital is themed. In the past, volunteers have dressed up as Uncle Sam and Lady Liberty for the Fourth of July and the Easter Bunny in April. Junes event was a 1950s-60s party.
They had me dressed up as Fonzie from Happy Days, Mr. Sharland said. They had me dye my hair black. It took me days to get all the black out, but it was worth it.
The parties take place on the eighth floor, Therapeutic Recreation, where many veterans live full time.
During the week, these halls are stacked with patients waiting to see doctors, said Mrs. Rupert. You have to see it to believe it.
The volunteers prepared around-the-world food for the Olympics: kielbasa, Spanish rice, meatballs. Many of the veterans asked for seconds of the kielbasa, a rare salty treat for patients on restrictive diets.
After lunch is karaoke. Veterans are encouraged to sing and dance. One man calls out Johnny Cash, and the group sings Walk the Line.
The effect of the music is instantaneous. Some of the patients hum and tap their toes. Others shake their heads in recognition.
I like music in general, said retired Navy veteran Thomas Hummel, who said hes played the harmonica since he was 3.
Once you do it, you come back for more, said Mr. Sharland, who said the group now also sings in nursing homes in the Ogdensburg area.
Their group coming, it always adds an element of not just entertainment a connection and a way for veterans to reminisce, said VA lead recreation therapist Suzanne M. Hawes. A lot of the songs they play are their era. Some of them will get up and dance and some enjoy singing the songs.
The volunteers have visited the hospital 13 times together, and some volunteers make special trips on their own, Mrs. Rupert said. It costs roughly $400 for the bus for one trip. The food and utensils are paid for out of the volunteers pockets and can cost upwards of $700, Mrs. Rupert said.
The group holds fundraisers once a month. A roast beef dinner will be held Sept. 15 from 4 to 7 p.m. at the Dobisky Center, Riverside Avenue.
On the way home the volunteers reminisce about past experiences and plan their next trip: a Halloween-themed party in October.
Once you go, you understand why its so important and why its worth it, said Mrs. Rupert, whose husband served in the Army and grandson has served in Afghanistan.
The volunteer often tells us they receive a lot from the interaction and learning about the veterans history as well and it ends up being a positive relationship, said Ms. Hawes. Its an all-around positive experience. I am a firm believer that those are all parts of the healing process.