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Volunteers give years to those in need

Red Cross ladies put in many hours at Madigan Army Medical Center

Ginny Venable, who works with the Red Cross at Madigan, says volunteering is rewarding and fun. /Cassandra A. Fortin

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Between them, Ginny Venable and Loretta Olson have about 85 years of volunteer service with the American Red Cross.

Venable, now 88, began as a volunteer who went door to door requesting donations while her husband, Ben Venable (now deceased), who retired as a U.S. Air Force lieutenant colonel and served as a pilot during the Korean War, was deployed for 17 months.

Olson, now 82, started as a book lady. She served as a unit chairman while her husband, Russell Olson (now deceased), who retired as a U.S. Army colonel, served on active duty.

Together, these women, along with dozens of others, are part of the legacy of the Red Cross at Madigan Army Medical Center.

Venable's Red Cross stint has included a number of stations and assignments around the world, including Japan, Washington, D.C., Germany, and Washington state. While in Washington, D.C., she was selected for a position as a Red Cross volunteer in a dental clinic, said Venable, who now resides in Lakewood.

"I helped with oral surgeries and later became a civil service worker," said Venable, who became a dental assistant and later taught dental assistant classes at Clover Park Technical College. "There were so many young men who came back from the Korean War who were shot in the face.  Many of them lost half their jawbones.  It was so rewarding to assist and see the many successful surgeries."

Later she was asked by Pierce County dentists to help start a dental assistant school. 

Although she originally declined, her husband sort of convinced her to do it.

"I told him that they wanted me to help start the school, be a teacher, and the director of the program," she said. "He told me I could not do it.  So I showed him.  After I had done it for a while, I went back to my husband and said, ‘I couldn't do it, huh?'"

Over the years, Venable has had many memorable experiences.  There was the time in 2003 that the Red Cross ran a USO for the soldiers as they prepared for deployment.

"The guys were so neat," she said with a giggle. "They were so appreciative.  I met thousands of soldiers.  It was so much fun."

Although she has been retired from the workforce for years now, she continues her volunteer work at MAMC.  Volunteering is rewarding and fun, she said.

"Every day when I volunteer something makes me feel humbled or rewarded," Venable said. "I'm a worker bee.  I try to help the patients with their needs."

She recalled an incident that occurred one day while she was working at the information booth outside the pharmacy in MAMC.

Two big, burly sergeants, who were both World War II veterans, noticed one of the badges she wears on the red vest she dons when she volunteers.  One of the sergeants really took a shine to one of the badges, she said.  She explained to the men that each one represented someone or something.  Several of them have a Texas theme, her home state.  One of the men reached into his pocket and pulled out a badge that had a photo of a mountain on it.

"He told me that the badge was his good luck charm during the Korean and Vietnam wars," she said. "Then he told me he wanted me to have the badge because I always gave him a smile.  It is really humbling and rewarding to work as a Red Cross volunteer.  Every day that you volunteer you know that you have helped your fellow man even if it is just a little bit."

Olson, of Steilacoom, has worked at Madigan for the entire 35 years she has been a Red Cross volunteer.  She began when retired Gen. Leslie Burger's wife, Julie, was working to build the Red Cross programs at MAMC. She started as the book lady, a job she held until medical problems forced her to take a position volunteering at the information desk in the nursing tower.

"When I was the book lady, I would take the cart around and bring patients books and newspapers," she said.

She recalled the time when the first quadruplets were born at the new Madigan hospital. Another time she almost witnessed a baby being born on the floor of the hospital. She cites meeting the soldiers and their families as one of the main reasons she has continued to volunteer.  She has won several accolades for her work, including the Department of the Army and FORSCOM Recreation Volunteer of the Year Award and the Presidential Award.  Most recently, she received a pin for 35 years of service.

Beyond the accolades and recognition, volunteering is fun, she said.

"As long as I can put my feet on the ground I will be at MAMC on Mondays," Olson said.  "It is worth it.  Once in awhile a soldier, doctors, or the nurses will come up to you and thank you for volunteering.  That one little thing can make your day."  

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