82-year-old sisters volunteer to stay active

By SARAH LOESCH Evansville Courier & Press

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is an AP-Indiana Exchange story offered by the Evansville Courier & Press.
EVANSVILLE, Ind. (AP) — Twin sisters Jackie Kempf and Jerrie Leach have spent a combined 49 years volunteering with Deaconess Hospital.
The 82-year-old Evansville natives both focused their efforts on volunteering with Deaconess Auxiliary and hospice facilities shortly after retiring from their respective positions at the hospital.
Kempf spent more than 24 years as chief cashier for the hospital, and Leach worked for 32 years as a respiratory therapist before finishing her career as the director of clinical education for the respiratory therapy program through Deaconess and the University of Southern Indiana.
Kempf said she enjoyed being chief cashier from the very beginning. She gave birth to all eight of her children at Deaconess and was familiar with some of the people who worked there.
“It was just my hospital,” she said. “When I wanted to go to work, I thought, ‘Well, that’s a good place. I’m going to try there, and they can’t get rid of me.’ “
Leach’s path to Deaconess started after her husband died of cancer.
She took care of him for seven years, and then at 33 started in a respiratory therapy program. She already had gained a lot of experience caring for the elderly and the sick within her own family. She took care of both of her parents until they died and with the help of her sister cared for an elderly aunt.
Leach said she never struggled to take care of her own family members and felt it was where she belonged.
“It was natural,” she said. “I felt comfortable with it. I’ve always been kind of a mother figure.”
So volunteering with hospice seemed like a natural fit. She said she felt it was where God wanted her to be.
“I feel like God gives you experiences in your life that are going to train you for what he wants you to do,” Leach said.
She also found inspiration from a hospice worker whom she brought in to speak to one of her classes about caring for the dying patient during her time as director of clinical education.
“I was so impressed with her that as soon as Deaconess said they were going to open a hospice in 1991, I’ve been involved,” Leach said.
Kempf started with the Deaconess Auxiliary about a year after her sister. She’d always had an interest, but much of the activity was during the day, so she had to wait until she’d retired.
The Auxiliary, which started in 1960, works to raise funds for the hospital and its various projects and currently has about 140 volunteers.
Kempf and Leach are on the board of directors, the governing body for the Auxiliary.
The sisters now deal with fewer hands-on duties during their volunteer hours, but when they first started they did most everything a hospice patient might need. Kempf said she would sit with patients, go grocery shopping for them, take them to doctor’s appointments and clean their homes.
Leach said they would do anything the patient wanted or needed. Every evening when she got off work, she’d go and sit on the bedside commode next to the patient, and they would watch television.
“Sometimes we would never say a word,” Leach said.
The silence eventually led Leach to ask the patient if she would prefer less frequent visits, since sometimes the patient would never speak to her.
“She said, ‘But you’re here if I want to,’ “ Leach said.
Leach said people sometimes ask her how she is able to volunteer in a place where most of the time the patients die, and she tells them “you just cry with the family and move on.”
She said the younger patients do get to her, but Leach has never really dealt with the death of anyone younger than 21.
Tina Hale, the hospice volunteer coordinator, said there are many opportunities within hospice to volunteer, some of which do not include contact with patients. Hospice has volunteers who arrange for flowers, call the bereavement team, answer phones, work the desk, sit with patients or deliver supplies.
Hale said they have people who feel called to work in hospice after someone in their own family dies. In those cases, they recommend the person wait a year, since it can be an emotional experience.
Before joining the team of hospice volunteers, new recruits go through four training sessions, which include tips on how to deal with the death of a patient.
Hale said it isn’t abnormal for volunteers to stick around for multiple years, like Kempf and Leach, but that the sisters are still unique.
“I have never met two more dedicated people to Deaconess,” she said.
Training and recruiting volunteers will be a focus for the hospital when it opens the new hospice house in November.
The new facility will feature two wings, each with seven beds. The rooms will have a suite for the patient’s family connected to them along with a family kitchen. Both Kempf and Leach were there for the groundbreaking of the new facility.
“It’s exciting to see the new hospice house,” Leach said, “I’m very anxious to work there.”
Kempf and Leach said volunteering helps them stay active as they age.
“If you don’t do anything, you kind of whittle away,” Kempf said.
She said part of her love of volunteering comes from a need to stay busy. She loves the contact with people as well.
In volunteering at the front desk at Deaconess’ main campus, Kempf said she sees many people she might not normally see.
Leach said she doesn’t know how people stay at home all the time.
“You have to, as they say, ‘use it or lose it,’ “ she said.
When Leach started to have more free time, it allowed her to volunteer more, and she plans to continue until she can’t physically complete her duties. She always told her three children the only important thing in life is what you do for someone else.
“Volunteering is where it’s at . “ Leach said. “Giving of your time is most important.”

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