One early November night at Brown University, 21-year-old Allison Chang and about a dozen fellow undergrads gathered in a quiet second-floor classroom. They passed around pens and a stack of blank thank-you cards. Someone put on instrumental music. Then, they started writing.
“Dear Veteran,” they began.
The club, Brown Undergrad Students for Hospice Volunteering (BUSH), is closely tied to HopeHealth. Many members, like Allison, are pre-med students with an interest in hospice or palliative care. They volunteer in person at HopeHealth to provide companionship for patients or respite for families. Some have shadowed physicians at the Hulitar Hospice Center.
Several times a year, they also have the opportunity to write thank-you cards to veterans who are on HopeHealth’s hospice service.
“It is because of your service and dedication that I have the opportunity to live safely, be a student, and do enjoyable activities like writing this letter to you,” Allison wrote recently to one veteran. “I am forever grateful for your sacrifice and bravery in fighting for our nation.”
For veterans on hospice, letters from a grateful community
For a veteran who is on hospice, a simple thank-you is a chance, at the end of life, to hear what their service has meant to their community — and to future generations. For some veterans, it’s the first time they’ve received such recognition.
“Through their letters, our Brown University volunteers do a beautiful job honoring veterans for their legacy,” says Robin Blanchette, HopeHealth’s volunteer supervisor. “That’s incredibly meaningful for our veterans, and their families.”
HopeHealth has several programs devoted to caring for veterans, including physical and emotional issues that often arise near the end of life. For many veterans, respectful acknowledgement is an important form of emotional support.
So far, Allison has written about 100 thank-you letters to veterans. She started during the pandemic, as a sophomore. “I felt like the one way I could help was reaching people through writing,” she says.
Many of these letters are presented to veterans along with a certificate and pin at a HopeHealth pinning ceremony. Others are delivered through HopeHealth’s Veteran-to-Veteran Volunteer Program, which connects volunteers and patients who have served in the armed forces.
“One thing that I really love about being a volunteer at HopeHealth is there are so many different ways you can support patients,” says Allison. “HopeHealth has an amazing way of drawing on their volunteers’ strengths.”
A younger generation’s message to veterans
With the easing of pandemic restrictions, Allison has begun volunteering in person at HopeHealth too. But writing to veterans will always be a favorite way to give back, she says.
As copresident of BUSH, she was touched to look around the room at the recent event and see a similar reaction from her fellow volunteers. As the night wore on, the group lingered longer than she’d expected, getting to know one another as they filled out more and more thank-you cards.
“People kept going up to get more cards,” Allison says. “It was one of those moments when you think, wow, we’re building a community. We’re bringing together people who are passionate about volunteering.”
With each completed card, she found herself imagining the veteran who might receive it. Who are they? What did they experience during their service? How will they feel when they open their card?
Last year, at a HopeHealth volunteer meeting, she got an answer to that final question. During introductions, a veteran program leader paused to confirm that she was the Allison, of the thank-you letters. They had personally witnessed the effect of her words, they said, when veterans read her letters at pinning ceremonies. “Your cards mean so much to families and patients,” they said.
“That was really heartwarming to hear,” Allison says. “It really means a lot to me that these veterans have dedicated themselves to preserving the American ideals of liberty and freedom. I am honored to be writing to them. We may not know each other personally, but I hope my gratitude comes through.”