By Gordon Williams
The monthly “window visits” by Red Cross volunteers to residents of the Veterans Home in Walla Walla WA have grown into something special. Yet as explained by volunteer Carolyne Meagher, who leads the Red Cross outreach to the home, the first window visit “just sort-of happened”. The result has been an innovative way of connecting with veterans left isolated by Covid-19.
The Walla Walla home houses 78 veterans. It was built in 2017 by the Washington State Department of Veterans Affairs, using an innovative small-home model. The residents live in small, home-sized units, rather than in a high-rise hulk.
Red Cross volunteers now travel to the home one day a week each month. They can’t go inside the facility. “What we can do,” says Carolyne, “is go from window-to-window, talking to the veterans inside. If the person inside has trouble making it to a window, the staff helps them prepare for our visit.”
Carolyne says the response to the visits has been enthusiastic — “They love it.” Sarah Tinkle, who oversees activities at the home, says, “We have a great partnership with the Red Cross. Even in the pandemic, they found a way to be there for the veterans.”
The Red Cross has a strong presence in Walla Walla. The Red Cross Central and Southeastern Washington chapter is headquartered in Kennewick, but there are satellite offices in Walla Walla and Yakima. The chapter has long supported the veteran’s hospital in Walla Walla. Red Cross volunteers have helped at the veteran’s home since it opened four years ago.
Pre-quarantine, when such things were possible, the Red Cross would enter the facility monthly, staging events for the veterans. “We had concerts and we brought in performers from the outside,” Carolyne says. “We gave out bags of personal hygiene items and bags of craft materials.”
Then came the pandemic, and the facility was closed to outsiders — so tightly, says Tinkle, that the home has not recorded a single case of Covid-19.
The Red Cross still provides those personal care and craft bags to the veterans, dropping them off for distribution to the residents rather than handing them out face-to-face. “We can’t be in there, but we wanted to give the veterans something to do,” Carolyne says. That is how the idea of window visits was born — unplanned at the beginning.
The Red Cross was invited to take part in a parade at the complex last Veterans Day. “When we got there, we learned that the parade had been cancelled,” Carolyne says. “We were there, with nothing planned, when someone suggested we go from building to building talking to residents through their windows.”
The idea was a success and is being repeated each month since then, weather permitting. The home marks each visit on its events calendar, and nurses alert residents before each visit.
Carolyne often brings her 10-year-old granddaughter and seven-year-old grandson to the visits. “The schools let them out early so they can visit, and the residents love having kids around,” she says. On one visit, she recalls, the grandson was wearing a Red Cross hat. “He tipped his hat to one veteran,” she says. “In return, the veteran saluted him. It was a wonderful moment.”
As it happens, Carolyne brought years of working with veterans when she first volunteered at the Red Cross three years ago. She was program coordinator for a Walla Walla Community College initiative at the Washington State penitentiary at Walla Walla. Around 250 prison employees are veterans, and Carolyne spent a dozen years on the Washington State Prison Veterans Committee, six of them as chairperson.
When she retired, she cast about for things to fill her days. “I finished organizing 2,000 family photos, and wondered what else could I do,” she says. A friend recognized the connection between Carolyne’s experience with veterans and the Red Cross work with veterans, and invited her to a meeting. She was hooked.
Today her work at the Walla Walla home is just one of the many ways Carolyne serves local veterans. She also assists at the Doughty Home — a residence for women military veterans in Walla Walla. Clearly, her work at the Red Cross is appreciated.
Michele Roth, executive director of the Central and Southeastern Washington Red Cross chapter, calls Carolyne a “gem.” Says Michele, “She puts her whole heart into everything she does to support the VA Home residents in Walla Walla.”