Volunteer chaplains respond to needs of patients

BY MARY HILDE
Record Gazette

People know him as chaplain Paul at San Gorgonio Memorial Hospital in Banning. His mission: to bring a ray of sunshine. In fact, there are 12 volunteer chaplains who make up this band of sunshine, cheering the sick with smiles and words of hope.

"We go in and encourage patients, trying to bring a little life and vigor into the room," said head chaplain Paul Schmidt. "These people are just so precious."

Started by Larry Steele in June 1999, the volunteer chaplain program is an expression of service to others. The chaplains agree it's rewarding to give of themselves freely for something they believe, and to actively help where help is needed.

"There are certain moments that make it all worth it," Schmidt said.

A volunteer chaplain's job is to tend the emotional and spiritual needs of patients, families and hospital, staff, and provide 24-hour, on-call service, seven days a week. They lend a compassionate ear and a pastoral point of view, and some have even been asked to conduct funeral services on the fly.

However, a chaplain's job mainly consists of visiting patients room-to-room, just chatting and often saying a short prayer for them. Nine out of 10 people will be glad for a prayer.

Occasionally they'll run into an agnostic or atheist, and especially at those times, Schmidt said, "You just commit yourself to the Lord to minister to them."

Pat Blanco has volunteered the longest at San Gorgonio Hospital and is a retired geriatric nurse-practitioner, currently a deacon in her church. She has been a chaplain since 2002, and has a strong desire to aid those physically and spiritually sick. She also has a strong impulse to show people respect.

"As chaplains, we're not to force faith on anyone," said Blanco. "We're to be open to all faiths or lack of faith."

Individual volunteers represent a wide range of faiths, including Jewish, Seventh-day Adventist, Nazarene, Methodist, Catholic, Evangelical, Episcopalian and non-denominational.

Merle and Mary Malland are Methodist and together have 15 years experience as lay chaplains.

"God uses us all, not just ministers," they agreed. "Sometimes people just want to talk, and we listen. We're trained to listen."

They both trained under the former head chaplain Larry Steele, and Merle uses his singing talent to uplift the sick or dying. Just recently he sang "The Lord's Prayer" to someone in hospice.

For Terry Halloran, a retired computer programmer and volunteer chaplain since 2004, chaplaincy also means listening. He has heard stories from people in all types of situations, ranging from recovering heart attack patients to single mothers holding their dead babies. No matter the case, he says that in his ministry, he mostly listens. If people want, he prays for them or reads Bible passages.

"Sometimes just being there, experiencing what they're feeling, a touch and your presence can mean a lot," agreed Schmidt. "We always pray, 'Lord, give me the words to say.' "

Halloran spent two years in Mexico, so between Schmidt and Halloran, they take care of the Spanish-speaking folks who need their services and attention.

In the end, there is one big word to describe volunteer chaplains -- merciful. They come in contact with much pain, suffering and people who have "why" questions, but they do their work faithfully, expecting nothing in return.

There is a special promise for chaplains in the Bible: "Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy."

If interested in joining the chaplaincy program, call (951) 769-2137. To learn more about the program, visit the hospital Web site at www.sgmh.org.