Volunteering: A Lifelong Dedication
Jack and Jane Russell have been volunteering with HPH Hospice for five years, but their desire to help others in need goes back decades.
On a sunny March day, Jack Russell spends the morning inside his Spring Hill home with his wife Jane celebrating his 74th birthday. The Russells have been volunteering with HPH Hospice for five years, but their desire to help others in need goes back decades.
When asked about how he first answered the call to become a volunteer, Jack recalled a time when he was in need of his own help. It was 1949. He was just a five-year-old when he became paralyzed from the neck down. He couldn’t move his limbs for three months, diagnosed with infantile paralysis, a type of polio. He’d spend the better part of the next several years in St. Charles Hospital in Port Jefferson, New York, where he would be treated for his polio. Thanks to the staff at St. Charles, Jack was able to show off his perfect posture nearly seven decades later.
In the 1960s, he left his home on Long Island, and moved across the Hudson River to New Jersey. He was still a New Yorker though, taking a job in the World Trade Center, working for the New York Port Authority. It was around this time he learned of a group of former patients who also spent part of their youth at St. Charles, and joined their “alumni group” as he called it. He knew then he wanted to give back.
“When I would address the people at St. Charles, I would say, ‘I’m going to need about 200 years of life in order to pay back what you’ve done for me,” Jack said. “It really was a miracle.”
He would eventually go one to serve on the hospital’s board of trustees.
Volunteering with a Different Twist
Jane’s story of service didn’t start with the type of traditional volunteering, but rather, a decision to care for someone when no one else would.
It was 2003 and the Russells had moved back to Long Island. Everyone in their Westhampton neighborhood knew about a woman named Caroline. She could usually be found roaming the streets, her clothes either inside-out or mismatched, often times with different shoes on each foot.
“Everybody knew who she was and they would not go near her for some reason,” recalled Jane. “Nobody wanted anything to do with her. She lived in a house that should have probably been condemned, but I just knew she needed help.”
Jane said that she and Jack were driving through town on a sweltering summer day when they spotted Caroline wearing a winter coat, complete with boots and gloves.
It was time for someone to finally help.
“We got her in the car and it took about 10 seconds to realize something was wrong,” Jane continued. “Everybody told us how stupid we were.”
Jane didn’t care.
She and Jack brought her to their home and gave her a shower. She noticed how dirty Caroline’s nails looked, but didn’t want to hurt her feelings.
“I told a little, mini lie,” she said. “I told her, ‘I’m taking a course in fingernails, could I practice on you?’”
It was a way for Jane to help, and let Caroline keep her dignity.
It wouldn’t end with a manicure. Jane and Jack invited Caroline to spend Thanksgiving and Christmas with their family that year.
“She just wanted somebody to love her,” admitted Jane. “That’s all she wanted. I don’t understand how you can just pass somebody by like that.”
Volunteering at HPH Hospice
In 2009, Jane and Jack moved to Florida. Five years later, their neighbor became sick and needed to spend his final days inside a hospice house. Jane saw the type of care offered, and knew it would be the perfect way for her and Jack to volunteer together.
“We were very impressed with hospice,” Jane said. “The care, the facility, the warmth when you walk in the door: It was just welcoming. It was easy for us.”
They made a difference almost immediately.
Eileen was their first patient they met as volunteers with HPH Hospice. They visited Eileen in her home, which wasn’t in great shape, had no great place to park, and left them feeling unsure about their decision.
After that first visit, Jane got a call from their Volunteer Coordinator Anne Clark, who suggested they give it one more week before deciding whether it was for them.
Sure enough, they kept coming back to see Eileen.
After a few weeks of regular visits, Jane would hug her when she left and told her she and Jack loved her.
Eileen later shared that her parents weren’t the affectionate type, and never told her that they loved her. Not knowing any different, Eileen was the same way with her own kids.
One morning, Jane got a call from Anne to tell her that Eileen was in the hospice house, and was asking to see Jane. It wasn’t one of the days Jane was scheduled to volunteer, but she was happy to go in and see Eileen anyway. When she walked in the room, she could sense that something was “off.” Still, the two talked for more than five hours.
Jane told Eileen she had to leave for a bit, but would come back for dinner. Like she did every time before, Jane hugged her, and said “Eileen, I love you.”
As she’s walking towards the door, she heard Eileen say, “Jane, I love you.”
Anne called an hour later.
“I was so touched that somehow Jack and I got to her, that she was able to finally, before her journey ended, say to somebody, ‘I love you’ and I was more touched that I was the one that she said it to.
“This is why you do hospice. You’re touched in a way that’s hard to explain,” Jane said.
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