Written by Liz Dorland & Randy Eshelman
For many Americans, Valentine’s Day is a day centered on gifts of flowers, chocolates and jewelry. But at the Eastern Nebraska Veterans Home, the day is more than just that, it’s a day to show others how much they are loved simply by spending time with them and getting back to the basics, like good old conversations.
The feeling of love was clear on Valentine’s Day as Jan Stern wheeled her husband, Ivan (fondly known as “Ike”) down the hallway toward the dining room. Wearing a bright red shirt under a gray Husker sweatshirt, Ike, a WWII Veteran lovingly gazed at his wife of 66 years before greeting me. This is the first time I’ve had the pleasure to meet the Sterns but they’re no stranger to the American Red Cross. You see, three years ago, Ike sat down with the Red Cross and shared his story for the Veterans History Project. Just one week after sharing his story of how the Red Cross helped him while serving as a Marine, Ike suffered a heartbreaking stroke, that stroke stole decades of priceless memories. Despite Ike’s loss of memory and the ability to complete his sentences, his true love Jan fills in the blanks about the day’s plans, a day not only special because it’s another Valentine’s Day with his sweetheart, but also his 90th birthday.
“What are we going to do today? Who is coming to see us?” she cordially prompts her husband.
Ike doesn’t say much, just smiles at her.
“We’re going to see Ray and his wife for dinner” she says. Ray is one Ike and Jan’s two sons.
The Stern family is just one of many faces who pack the dining room for the annual Sweetheart Lunch at the Veteran’s Home. On this day, Red Cross workers, like P.J. Savage and Paul Loede transform the expansive cafeteria room into a warm, upbeat place for families, friends and volunteers to enjoy a meal prepared with love by chefs.
Jovial sounds of piano music played by Red Cross extraordinaire Bob Arsonault amplify the quiet hum of conversations among families and friends.
Patti Hopp says family is much more than blood relatives at this home for our heroes. “Our dedicated volunteers spend hours with our residents. Many times they become very close and consider them to be like family.
Eric and Jen Epperson are a perfect example of this bond. Jen, a Master Sergeant serving with the 55th Wing, and Eric, a Technical Sergeant also with the 55th, devote hours with residents of the Veterans’ Home.
Sitting at a table obscured by a vase filled with a dozen pink roses delivered by Eric, they caught up on the week’s events with beloved friend and veteran Barbara Lamb.
The friendship between Barb and the Epperson’s began when Jen walked into the Veterans’ Home to share a meal with one of the residents. That’s how she came to know Barb. The surprise friendship between generations began with a game of Cribbage, before long Jen’s husband Eric joined in on the fun, spending hours with Barb every Sunday.
Lamb worked in administration during WWII. She nearly completed one year of service before she got pregnant and was forced out of the military. “I would have liked to stay a while longer in the service,” Lamb admitted.
Jen affectionately looks at Barb, who sits next to her at the table, and says, “I call her Queen B.”
For the Eppersons, giving time to veterans like Barb is especially important. “It’s nice,” stated Eric. “Here you come full circle. They served in the military for us, and now we’re serving time to protect the rights they fought so hard for in the first place.”
And “paying it forward” is what volunteering at the Eastern Nebraska Veterans Home through the American Red Cross is all about. It’s an opportunity to give of yourself, to get to know those who have served. Whether it’s by playing cards on a Sunday afternoon, buying a dozen roses on Valentines Day for a friend or simply sharing a cup of coffee over conversations and piano music the dining room at Eastern Nebraska Veterans Home truly (at least in my mind) embodied the spirit of Valentine’s Day.
The American Red Cross invites you to become a Red Cross volunteer and support our Service to Armed Forces. You too can give your time to a veteran at the Eastern Nebraska Veterans Home. To become a volunteer, register online by visiting: http://www.redcross.org/ne/omaha/volunteer.