We had a volunteer meeting the other day and lots of volunteers showed up. There were new volunteers, all excited to share their first stories mixed in with volunteers who have been doing the work for five, six, and seven years. And then there’s Gertie, who has been doing this work for twenty years.

I gave them an exercise to do. They had to pair up and tell each other about their most memorable patient. Then they had to write answers to a short questionnaire which complimented their partner on the worth of their visits to the patient. It was meant to reinforce the worth of their volunteer work.

One volunteer even told me how glad she was that she came to the meeting. She wasn’t going to come, but then decided to at the last minute. She said, “Often I feel as though I’m not helping our patients. I’m glad I came today and heard all these stories. I just needed that boost to keep me going.”

Gertie’s partner shared Gertie’s story. It was twenty years ago, Gertie’s first patient. The patient lived in a house with bars on the windows that were literally meant to keep everyone out. Gertie tried to gain access but was refused. Twenty years ago, not too many people knew what hospice was all about. Her patient was understandably suspicious.

Gertie kept trying though and patiently stood on the stoop, explaining to the crack in the door that she was a volunteer and was assigned to help. Eventually, she was let in. That experience not only stayed with her, it helped to form her ideas about volunteering. Gertie is practical, consistent, loyal and hard working. Her first patient cemented those attributes. The patient grew to tolerate her visits and benefited from them. Gertie is not the touchy feely type and gave that patient and family what they wanted: Hands off respect.

Everyone was quite impressed with the story and the volunteer who tenaciously did her job. They are in awe of Gertie. Frankly, so am I. Twenty years is a long time. Who stays married for twenty years? Holds a job for twenty years? Lives in the same spot for twenty years? Yet Gertie has been volunteering in the same capacity for twenty years. She is a wealth of stories and experiences. She takes little to no management because she needs none. She goes about her job with seriousness, pragmatic problem solving and a quiet respect for the rules.

It makes me think about twenty years later for all the volunteers and for myself as well. While growth, change and learning to adjust are wonderful, there’s also something to be said for the non-romantic notion of steadiness. In the fable about the tortoise and the hare, the tortoise wins. Gertie is a volunteer tortoise, steady and slow, her eyes always directed ahead. There’s no excitement, but also no drama.  I don’t think we appreciate her enough. But then, she’s not about that, because twenty years later, I think she’s exactly where she wants to be.

thank you Gertie.