Students Serve 'Soldiers and Sailors'

Eight Mercyhurst students will be volunteering at the Pennsylvania Soldiers and Sailors Home in Erie this school year.

Will DeFeo, August Mezzio, Maddie Riley, Amanda Salasek, Corey Sayles, Marta Timmerman, Rebecca Watts and Austin Wood attended an orientation on Saturday, Sept. 20, in which they learned about the services the home provides, were informed of the home’s rules and regulations and were given a tour of the facility.

The home, one of six care facilities of the Pennsylvania Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, offers a personal care unit, a nursing care unit and a Dementia/ Alzheimer’s unit for qualifying Pennsylvania veterans. It is located on the 500 block of East 3rd Street.

Volunteers will be assisting veterans in several ways, including friendly visitation, assisting residents around the premises, participation in activities such as bingo and arts and crafts and taking take residents on field trips.

Most of the students found out about the opportunity at the Mercyhurst Campus Involvement Fair, and wanted to volunteer for various reasons.

“What really sparked me was being able to give back,” said Sayles. “To be able to just be there and be able to relate to that individual because of my prior service, as the vice president of the Mercyhurst Veterans Association.” Sayles is a veteran of the U.S. Navy.

“I was encouraged to volunteer with the Soldiers and Sailors home not only because I have felt an admiration and connection to our vets, but because the home offers a highly flexible volunteer program,” said DeFeo. “I personally plan on reading to the residents a few times a week.”

One student, Mezzio, will be volunteering through Service Learning’s MUSCLE program, which stands for Mercyhurst University Scholars of Community Learning Engagement.

“MUSCLEs are placed in a site in the community and it hopefully ties into their career aspirations. They are more than a work study, not quite an intern,” said Bethany Brun, Coordinator of Service Learning. “They are a liaison between that organization and campus.” The MUSCLE program runs as a volunteer basis. There is currently no scholarship for this program, but Service Learning is looking to fund one, according to Brun.

Through the MUSCLE program, Mezzio, a Sports Medicine major with a concentration in occupational therapy, will be able to complete clinical hours in occupational therapy at the home.

He is also working with Ken Vybiral, volunteer resources coordinator, to develop a new orientation program that could potentially be implemented statewide.

As of now, each state facility runs its own orientation program. Vybiral said he would like to focus on making sure certain essentials, such as learning how to properly transport a resident in a wheelchair, are covered and build the rest off of volunteers’ experiences.

“We don’t have to stay with the same tired and true roles. We can start to develop and create programs that they’re interested in. We can kind of work their volunteer experience around things that they’re passionate about. Ideally that’s the volunteer program I want to create.

“If we continue to piece together the absolute necessities, as well as what we feel are the best qualities, presenting that to the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, we can present it as a model for all the homes to use,” he said.

This group of Mercyhurst students, as well as students from other area colleges such as Penn State Behrend, is one of the first major outreaches to the college age population the Pennsylvania Soldiers and Sailors Home has undertaken, according to Vybiral.

Volunteers have the freedom to go to the home when it is convenient for them, but to the veterans, consistency is what really makes a difference.

“The lasting impact of having someone come in once a week or every other week, just to give them that thought and that feeling that someone’s coming to see me, you really can’t quantify that kind of morale boost a resident can have,” Vybiral said.