At 8:30 a.m. outside Centennial Terrace, Ogdensburg, four members of the Amvets Post 1997 Volunteers for American Veterans file in a First Student school bus on their way to the Veterans Affairs Medical Center, 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, who volunteered.
The group cracks jokes and tells stories as they travel the two and half hour-trip to the hospital. They travel that distance for a simple reason: to help the veterans there 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.
When they reach the hospital, the group does not any waste time as they unload four trays of hot food, a giant cake, games and state-of-the-art karaoke equipment.
We have a system, volunteer Michael Mike Sharland said.
Each monthly visit to the Syracuse Hospital is themed and planned. In the past, the group has dressed up as Uncle Sam and Lady Liberty for the Fourth of July, the Easter Bunny in April and Fonzie and in poodle skirts for a 1950s-60s party in June.
They had me dressed up as Fonzie from Happy Days for the 50s and 60s day, said Mr. Sharland. They had me dye my hair black. It took me days to get all the black out, but it was worth it.
The group makes their way towing the carts towards the elevators, which will take them to the eighth floor, the Therapeutic Recreation Floor, 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 prepare around-the-world food in honor of the Olympics in the Community Living Center: kielbasa, Spanish rice, meatballs and to the veterans. Many of the veterans ask for seconds of the kielbasa, a rare salty treat for patients on restrictive diets. Immediately following lunch, the group cleans up and prepares to set up karaoke station. Veterans are encouraged to get up, 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.
To some who cant speak, you can see how their eyes light up in recognition, said Mrs. Rupert.
I like music in general, said retired Navy veteran Thomas Hummel, who said hes played the harmonica since he was 3 years old.
Once you do it once, you come back for more, said Mr. Sharland, who said the group now sings in many of the Ogdensburg area nursing homes.
Their group coming, it always adds an element of not just entertainment a connection and a way for veterans to reminisce, said VA Hospital Lead Recreation Therapist Suzanne M. Hawes. A lot of the songs they play are from their era. Some of them will get up and dance and some just enjoy singing the songs.
The volunteers have visited the hospital at least 13 times together, and some volunteers make special trips on their own, Mrs. Rupert said. It costs roughly $400 for the bus alone for one trip. The food and utensils are paid out of the volunteers pockets and can cost upwards of $700, Mrs. Rupert said.
The group holds fundraisers once a month to fund their trips.
For their next fundraiser, volunteers will be sponsoring a roast beef dinner Sept. 15 from 4 to 7 p.m. at the Dobisky Center, Riverside Avenue. Adults pay $6.50, children 5 and under are $3.50.
On the way home from the hospital the group reminisces about past experiences and plans 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, who like many of the volunteers, is not a veteran but whose husband served in the army and grandson has served in Afghanistan.
The volunteer often tells us they receive lot from the interaction and learning about the veterans history as well and 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. Even if its just a little while, those veterans dont focus on those constant thoughts of depression or chronic pain. And thats a positive thing.