My grandmother lived in Texas, and she would remind me that everything was bigger there -- including their hearts. The work of one person, empowered by a Corporation for National and Community Service program, demonstrates how thousands of people are making a Texas-sized impact on the lives of our nation's veterans.
Nearly 29,000 Texas RSVP volunteers in 28 projects contribute 5 million hours of service annually to their communities. One of those projects has dedicated thousands of hours to the Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center in Houston through the Harris County Senior Companions program.
Senior Corps Project Director Marilyn Vargiu was introduced to Senior Companions, RSVP, and Foster Grandparents when she began volunteering with Meals on Wheels more than 25 years ago. In 2011, Vargiu took the helm of the Senior Companions program at the Jewish Community Center in Houston.
“It's been a wonderful journey from day one,” she said, lauding the dedication and compassion of her volunteers who have supported veterans in their communities with companionship and caring for nearly 20 years.
Vargiu has seen many acts of compassion during those two decades, and she shared one memorable story that demonstrates how national and community service affects the lives of our nation's heroes.
During her first week on the job, Vargiu visited an elderly veteran, Mr. John Maxey, a double amputee who lived at home with his elderly wife. Maxey was able to remain in his home thanks to the time, attention, and support from one of the Senior Companion volunteers, Toby Johnson.
Johnson volunteered regularly and often stayed with the family. He helped Maxey get to his VA doctor's appointments, spent weekends helping him move about his home and community in his wheelchair, and became a trusted fellow senior with whom he could share life's experiences. Johnson was with Mr. Maxey and his family for 16 years until Maxey's death.
As a proud member of Senior Corps, Johnson started volunteering at the VA at age 63 and is still active today at the tender age of 86. Even after the death of his own wife, Johnson remained engaged and committed to helping other veterans and their families.
The good work of people like Johnson is made possible by the Houston Jewish Community Center and the Harris County Senior Companion program. Both organizations were recognized this past week by the Under Secretary for Health for the Department of Veterans Affairs with the American Spirit Award, which identifies and recognizes successful volunteer recruitment initiatives for veterans.
Vargiu accepted the award on behalf of Senior Corps at the 66th Annual VAVS National Advisory Committee meeting in Charleston, S.C.
We're sure she was wearing a smile as big as the true spirit of volunteerism in Texas.
Koby Langley is the Senior Advisor on Wounded Warrior, Veteran, and Military Family Initiatives at the Corporation for National and Community Service. He is a former member of the Presidential Transition Team for the Department of Veterans Affairs, an Iraq War Veteran, and a Bronze Star recipient.