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Hospital Volunteers - the Early Days: one small group of women, one project at a time

Laura Pessagno of Niles was one of 10 women in 1955 who gathered one afternoon and decided to raise money for a proposed hospital in the community. They had been recruited by a small group of local area business leaders who wanted to improve health care access for residents in southern Alameda County.

“We met at Josephine Walton’s home and decided we could help,” Mrs. Pessagno said. “Morris Hyman, then president of Fremont Bank, drew up bylaws establishing the Washington Hospital Service League as a not-for-profit organization and we went to work.”

“Our first project — and only fundraising project for the first three years — was to open the Cheery Budget Shop, stocked with used household items, clothing, costume jewelry, furniture — anything that someone might want to buy.”

The Cheery Budget Shop was quite popular, Mrs. Pessagno said, both with customers and with Service League volunteers who worked in the shop and who also recruited donations to sell. “We washed and ironed clothing, cleaned items to go on our shelves,” she said. “We had plenty of merchandise, plenty of customers and everyone enjoyed working at the store.”

In the end, after three years, the Service League volunteers had raised $15,000 for the new hospital which opened in 1958. In today’s market, that is the equivalent of more than $132,000.

Once the Hospital was open, the Service League volunteers moved inside the Hospital building. They worked at the Hospital welcome desk, ran the new gift shop and a coffee shop. Volunteers made sandwiches and other food items for sale for visitors and staff.

The coffee shop no longer exists but the gift shop and welcome desk are still a part of the Service League’s responsibilities at Washington Hospital. Service League volunteers also can be found in many other important roles greeting patients and visitors, supporting staff with patient discharges, keeping concerned friends and family of surgery, emergency and critical care patients updated on the condition of loved ones, interacting with patients by providing emotional support during therapy and assisting staff in feeding patients.

“And we run all sorts of errands for patients and staff, including delivering flowers and newspapers and other needed tasks,” Mrs. Pessagno says.

Mrs. Pessagno is still an active volunteer after 60 years. Among other activities, she prepares hand-written certificates for high school students who have completed 100 hours of volunteer work at the Hospital.

The Service League counts more than 500 women and men, including high school students, on its volunteer roster. Since Mrs. Pessagno and the other women first sat down in that living room in 1955, the Service League has provided almost 2 million hours of volunteer service.

And fundraising is still a primary mission of the Service League which has donated more than $2.4 million for needed Hospital equipment and programs and over $300,000 in health career scholarships to students.

Washington Hospital Service League volunteers will be honored at a special 60th Anniversary luncheon on Tuesday, October 13. All past and current Service League volunteers are encouraged to attend to celebrate the impressive accomplishments of these past 60 years. Special guests will include former Service League presidents.

Reservations for the 60th Anniversary Luncheon may be obtained by contacting Washington Hospital Volunteer Services at 510.791.3465. Past presidents and current adult volunteers are invited to the 60th Anniversary Luncheon as guests of Washington Hospital. Past volunteers are invited to attend the luncheon for $10.