Along the basement walls of the Robley Rex VA Medical Center, hundreds of boxes wrapped in ribbons and bows are stacked to the ceiling with Dale Winningham, Sr. standing beside.
A Cold War veteran and volunteer at the center, Winningham is one of hundreds of volunteers who helped package and wrap each box filled with clothing items and toys, which will be shipped to local families enrolled in various programs affiliated with the Veteran’s Association.
“You feel the joy of Christmas coming in here at six o’clock in the morning, wrapping these gifts,” said Winningham, who has volunteered at the hospital for the last seven years. “We were playing Christmas music on the radio, just going to town not even thinking about ourselves but thinking about the veterans. I was exhausted, but it’s a good exhausted.”
Over the next few days, 162 individuals, 24 families and 50 children will receive these gift packages as an early Christmas present. Many of the recipients are homeless veterans and their families, who without the support of the VA, would not be able to afford gifts this holiday season.
“These veterans are getting a full outfit of clothing: shoes, socks and underwear, as well as a hat, coat and gloves,” said MaryJane Crowder, chief of Voluntary Service at the VA Medical Center. “We do this every year. It’s a great project because it’s one where we get a lot of support from staff at the hospitals, our volunteers and from our partnering organizations and corporate groups.”
The project is similar to the Angel Tree program where individuals and sponsors select an ‘angel’ – in this case a veteran’s name tag – from the tree and purchase a gift for him or her. Crowder and those who help coordinate the project receive phone calls as early as October from individuals looking to donate.
“This year it was unprecedented,” Crowder said. “Every tag was adopted before December. It’s heartwarming to see how many people are involved. We’re talking hundreds of people coming together. Nothing better to be a part of in this facility. No veteran is ignored who comes into this facility during the holiday season.”
Winningham, especially, works hard to ensure his fellow veterans feel appreciated during the holidays, which is often a lonely time for patients at the hospital who don’t have family nearby to visit.
“(My wife and I) decided when we moved back to Louisville that we would work every holiday and weekends,” Winningham said. “That was our way of giving back to the people who were in the hospitals or nursing homes, and going in there and cheering them up. Patients loved it. I made sure I gave back to them what I couldn’t have. They didn’t have families coming in. I was like their family.”
From Winningham’s experience stationed in Naples, Italy as a Ship’s Serviceman Second Class (E5-SH2) in the Navy, he knows what it’s like to be without family during the holidays and how care packages and warm greetings from family or even strangers can lift one’s spirits.
“I spent about six cruises going to the Mediterranean,” Winningham said. “I spent Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s away from my family. My aunt made me a rum cake once and surprisingly enough it made it through the mail still in tact.”
Now that he’s returned to the states after 12 and a half years in the military, Winningham keeps it simple when it comes to celebrating Christmas, and instead focuses on giving those in need a holiday celebration worth remembering.
“(My wife and I) don’t have any family close by,” he said. “We may go out to a restaurant instead of making a big, giant holiday out of it. We go to Shelbyville with my sisters. But, of course, I have the best time doing Christmas here in the VA. I do all the stuff that involves the veterans. I just love it. It’s a good feeling you get from giving.”
Winningham has a gracious group of friends at the VA hospital, and while giving to others is his top priority, he too has been given a special gift this holiday season.
The Department of Veterans Affairs will provide Winningham and the approximately 500,000 outpatients and 5,000 inpatients the hospital serves annually a new, cutting-edge medical facility that will replace the current VA Medical Center off Zorn Avenue.
The decision to build a new facility in Louisville was made following a 2004 study, which upon completion determined where veterans’ health care facilities across the country should receive upgrades. The VA has chosen the Brownsboro Road location as the preferred site for the new center. Known as The Midlands, the 35-acre site is located near Holiday Manor off Interstate I-264.
“Fifty years ago, medical technology was pretty simple,” said Bob Morey, facility planner for the VA Medical Center. “In order to put in modern technology, we really fight with space. We’re a pretty active medical center. (The new center will) have state-of-the art technology in it. It will be designed for patient flow. Right now we’re about 300,000 square feet short of space. Based on the workload we do, (the new center will) be sized for the workload. I think it’s going to be very nice and it’s going to help us develop and provide even better care.”
With its high-tech equipment and increased space, the new facility will allow for improved quality of services and even better patient care from the more than 1700 employees and countless volunteers like Winningham at the current center.
But with Winningham’s unparalleled passion for giving, it’s certain regardless of where the VA Medical Center is located in the future, any veteran who crosses his path will feel welcome and cared for by the man who says he’s willing to do whatever he can to help.
“It’s just the way my nature is,” he said. “My experience here has been good. I’ve gotten to know a lot of the veterans who work here. It’s one big, happy family. I like working in the hospital setting. Everyone’s happy go-lucky to be here. They love the veterans and I believe the veterans get top-quality care here.”
photos by CHRIS HUMPHREYS | Voice-Tribune
Category: Cover Stories
About the Author (Author Profile)
Ashley spends half her time writing stories at The Voice-Tribune office and half her time out on the town conducting interviews, while occasionally dressing in wild outfits to fully immerse herself in the experience (aka Princess Leia at Comic Con). Ashley is a huge UofL fan and loves the Yankees and the Boston Celtics (she is fully aware of the irony). She hopes to one day outshine Erin Andrews on ESPN and enjoys running, Bardstown Road/Fourth Street, Breaking Bad and reality TV (she’s not ashamed to admit that).