For three years, Dave Cass refilled birdfeeders and birdbaths at the SECU Hospice House. While the staff appreciated what he did, the hospice volunteer didn’t feel his contributions were all that meaningful.
Cass considered quitting but chose instead to pitch an idea to the on-site social worker. What he really wanted to do, he told Murray Dees, was to honor the veterans who arrived as patients at the hospice house.
Dees encouraged Cass to do some research, and the retired Coast Guard reservist quickly found a program already in place at other hospices.
Titled “We Honor Veterans,” the program was part of the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization, in collaboration with the Department of Veteran Affairs.
It turned out to be exactly what Cass was looking for.
In March, Dees applied to the program. And in keeping with WHV guidelines, Cass and Wanda Johnson, coordinator of the hospice volunteers, began presenting certificates of appreciation to the veterans.
In the months since, the WHV has accepted the hospice house as a recruit and, most recently, awarded the first of five partner levels, or stars, for its work, which includes talks with community groups.
For every presentation, Cass dresses in his uniform, which still fits to a T, and Johnson, coordinator of volunteers, sings “America the Beautiful” a cappella. Cass also gives the veterans a small U.S. Flag and a flag representing their branch of military. After thanking them for their service, he renders a salute. And if the veteran feels up to talking, Cass is willing and eager to listen.
The flags are later displayed outside the patient’s door and in a wooden holder that Cass made out of wood for all 18 rooms in the hospice house.
Johnson says the presentations have been rewarding. “They’re usually a surprise, and we encourage all of the staff to join us,” she adds.
Johnson notifies Cass as soon as she finds out that a patient has a military background. “We once called him on a Saturday night, and he came over in his uniform,” she says.
Laura Daniels is another hospice social worker involved in the program. In addition to honoring vets, she helps connect them with VA resources such as burial benefits.
“It’s been humbling,” she says. “We’ve had minimally responsive patients move their hands or smile when we sing during the ceremony.”
Cass says veterans and their families seem to appreciate the gesture. “It sends the message that we care,” he says. “And it’s much more fun than feeding the birds and watering the fountains.”
Know a veteran who would like to become a hospice volunteer and help with the “We Honor Veterans” program? Contact Wanda Johnson at 919-209-5103.