Transforming an institution into a home

Volunteers help provide a higher level quality of life for residents at the Iowa Veterans Home

T-R PHOTO BY MIKE BURVEE Doris Lemker and Gary Fulton have logged thousands of volunteer hours and made numerous activities possible for hundreds of veterans who reside at the Iowa Veterans Home in Marshalltown.

A large number of staff members work alongside the equally numerous veterans who reside at the Iowa Veterans Home in Marshalltown. The experience goes to another level when the residents are able to take part in a wide array of activities, thanks in part to volunteers.

Doris Lemker and Gary Fulton make up two of the 40 or so weekly people devoting some time to help out.

Lemker’s log began back in 1990, initially helping through her involvement with the VFW and American Legion groups with her husband.

“We started out by helping out with trivia, it was something the VFW, Legion and IVH all had during the week,” Lemker said. “We also helped out with the weekend activities, and now here I am.”

Nearly 30 years of service has led to 30,000 accumulated hours. Volunteer Coordinator Aimee Deimerly couldn’t believe the numbers early on.

“I called her because I thought there was a mistake,” Deimerly said. “There’s no way she worked 16 hours in a day.”

There was no mistake.

Lemker comes in regularly around 7 a.m. and stays until 6 or 7 p.m. Regularly. Some days she’s there longer, some days shorter. Recently the IVH had a picnic event on the Fourth of July which went late into the night, a common occurrence for Lemker.

“Sometimes we go to afternoon baseball games and I’m not off till 10 or 11 at night,” Lemker said.

Fulton hasn’t been around the IVH as much, starting in 2011, but is still equally as impactful. Often times his main contribution is escorting residents to various activities or throughout the campus.

It’s simple but effective work.

“Often times when either Doris or I go with a group of residents somewhere it means that another resident gets to go too,” Fulton said. “Those group trips allow for socialization between us and them as well as between the residents who may not see each other normally.”

He also takes some time out of his day to work one-on-one with some of the residents. One instance being reading the daily paper to a man who can’t use his arms due to paralyzation.

Both Fulton and Lemker are well known by many of the veterans within IVH. As time goes on they tend to get attached to those they help care for, finding out more about their life story and personality.

“Sometimes when one of the residents passes away it’s like losing a family member,” Lemker said. “You see them on a regular basis, and then they’re gone.”

For her, the veterans she works with are like family to her, not having her own in town. The same can be said about the residents themselves, many of them don’t have family close by, with the volunteers and staff helping fill that void.

“People are surprised at how well they get to know somebody and often develop great friendships,” Deimerly said. “Many of the volunteers here say they get a lot more out of it than what they put in.”

Many of the events or trips Lemker accompanies on are things she wouldn’t think of doing by herself. Recently she went with a group to a community concert, something she wouldn’t have done otherwise.

Just last week the recreation staff organized some games in some of the hallways to get the residents active and out of their rooms. Lemker recalls everyone was having a wheel of a time when taking part in bag toss or bowling.

Still, a good number of residents end up cooped up in their room for most of the day. Some lost in their memories, others having less physical ability to get out.

“When you see a particular activity that touches them, that’s worth it,” Fulton said. “The goal is to trigger something that they can either still do or remember doing in their younger years, its fun to watch.”

A majority of the hundreds of residents acknowledge what the volunteers do for them, some purchasing thank-you cards. Other times a family member might call in to thank a volunteer and make them aware how much an impact they had on their mom or dad.

“My heart feels good to know that our work is appreciated and is making an impact,” Fulton said.

Other people in the community offer their ways of contribution as well, sometimes a group’s bill being paid for by someone at a restaurant. Other times it’s less of a gesture, but the appreciation is the same.

“I took a group to Walmart to get some groceries and one of the gentleman came up 27 cents short,” Lemker said. “Another gentleman came over and gave me a dollar to cover the cost, it was very thoughtful.”

Despite the community efforts outside IVH, there aren’t enough made inside it. Volunteers are constantly needed to help assist staff, and not many answer that call.

“I think some people just don’t understand what all we do here,” Fulton said. “Other people might not be comfortable working with people in wheelchair’s, but they’d get past that barrier.”

Lemker also mentioned that a good portion of VFW members have never visited the IVH. She also knows that many residents of Marshalltown haven’t either, hoping that will change in the future.

The impact volunteers have is immeasurable and can barely be put into words. Without them it’d just be like another senior living home devoted to veterans. Activities wouldn’t be possible and there wouldn’t be as much enjoyment.

“These people allow for the transformation of this institution into a home,” Deimerly said.

To learn more or to schedule a tour of the Iowa Veterans Home visit