Jefferson Awards nominee: Volunteer Elizabeth Turner forgets her troubles and helps vets

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Through myriad personal problems, Elizabeth Turner has volunteered for more than 8,000 hours since 2004 at the Southwestern Veterans Center, a state-run nursing home in East Liberty.

She's part of an elite group known as the Beverage Brigade, a handful of volunteers who keep residents in their units well-hydrated -- and therefore healthier -- by reminding or cajoling or helping them to drink.

"A lot of time they won't take in the liquid they should," said Ms. Turner, 73, of East Liberty. "You have to encourage them. Sometimes it's not easy.

"I sing to them, talk to them and try to cheer them up, and they warm up to me," she added. "They know me. They know when I'm not there. ... I'm just part of them like they're a part of me now. It took eight years."

She puts in eight-hour days, three or four days a week. She also arranged for her church choir to sing for them.

For her work at Southwestern, Ms. Turner, a lifelong community volunteer, retired hat designer and mother of five, has been named a finalist for the Most Outstanding Volunteer of the Year for the Jefferson Award for Public Service.

The finalists were chosen from among 48 Jefferson Award winners in 2011. The Most Outstanding Volunteer will be announced at an award ceremony April 19 in the Music Hall of the Carnegie Museums of Art and Natural History, where all Jefferson Award winners will be honored. The outstanding volunteer winner will represent Western Pennsylvania at the national Jefferson Awards ceremony in Washington, D.C., this summer.

PG Charities will donate $1,000 to Southwestern Veterans Center on Ms. Turner's behalf.

The program is administered locally by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette with sponsorship by Highmark, BNY Mellon, The Pittsburgh Foundation and The Heinz Endowments.

Ms. Turner was nominated for the Jefferson Award by Lynn Lewkowicz, Southwestern's volunteer coordinator, who calls the Beverage Brigade "probably our most important volunteer assignment we have because we know the more hydrated anybody is, the healthier they are. It is even more critical in elderly persons."

Those properly hydrated are less prone to urinary tract infections, skin tears and other health problems. "We keep people out of the hospital by keeping them well-hydrated," Ms. Lewkowicz said.

But the importance of the Beverage Brigade is only part of the story behind Ms. Lewkowicz's nomination of Ms. Turner.

"Elizabeth has been with us a very long time," Ms. Lewkowicz said. "She's dedicated not only to her assignment but dedicated to the residents she serves. I thought she was deserving of recognition ... because she does it under circumstances [in which] other people would just give up."

In the years since she's been volunteering at Southwestern, Ms. Turner has suffered from back problems, seen one of her daughters suffer two strokes and undergo treatment for cancer, and watched a granddaughter get shot and wounded while walking down the street. Fire has touched her twice, once when a neighbor's house burned, causing smoke damage to her own, and once when furnace wires in her basement caught fire.

"I think the most outstanding thing is how she has come back time after time after time from adversity," Ms. Lewkowicz said.

"We had our tragedies and things that have happened to us," Ms. Turner said. "Through prayers and everybody helping us we came through it. Everybody's going to have things happen to you."

Her strength and devotion to her volunteering in time of trouble did not surprise her family.

"That's typical of us, the females of our family -- just very strong-willed and determined," said Charlene Turner of Homewood, the oldest of three daughters. There also is a son; a second son died.

Her mother has been helping others all of her life.

"We started volunteering when I was a little girl in my church," Ms. Turner said. "I've been volunteering ever since. I used to go into homes and help people that couldn't help themselves too much." Giving of your time was taught "in church and school and at home. We weren't allowed to have too much idle time," she added.

Her volunteer work continued in between raising her children. She volunteered at the former Columbia Hospital in Wilkinsburg, working at the information desk, filing and "visiting the patients with flowers and conversations." Later, she volunteered at the Vintage Senior Community Center in East Liberty, where she taught a health class.

It was while she was at Vintage that a friend asked her to work instead at Southwestern Veterans Center.

"I didn't want to leave [Vintage], " Ms. Turner said. "I gave up the Vintage without looking back. I'm glad I did because it's been very rewarding to me. I get very attached to the residents. They're very sweet. They talk to you; they take you under their wing as well as you taking them under your wing."

And although she likes working with all elderly people, she has a special fondness for the veterans. "It's really trying to give back and say thank you. I really love the veterans."

Tomorrow: Nicholas List.

lifestyle

Pohla Smith: psmith@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1228.


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