One time, when Andrea Zagata went to apply for a volunteer position at a hospital, she was told a person with disabilities could not be a hospital volunteer.

Even though she thought that was wrong, she didn’t let it bother her and later applied to volunteer at Schneck Medical Center in Seymour.

There, she was welcomed warmly.

Since July 2014, she has volunteered 6½ hours per day three times a week in the hospital’s rehabilitation services building.

Story continues below gallery

For exemplifying advocacy for people with disabilities and serving as a role model for others, the rehabilitation services department and Zagata were presented with the Community Service Award from The Arc of Jackson County in November. The nonprofit organization advocates for the well-being and independence of people with mental, physical and emotional disabilities.

The month before, during the hospital guild’s Volunteer Recognition Luncheon, Zagata received her first pin for accumulating more than 500 volunteer hours.

Zagata, who has a learning disability, has proved that people with disabilities are able to serve, said Holly Wischmeier, the hospital’s director of rehabilitation services.

“It was nice to be recognized, and I think it was great for Andrea to come with The Arc, seeing that there are all kinds of abilities that people have and putting them in the right place,” Wischmeier said.

“There are so many people in this department that work with Andrea on a daily basis and help find things for her to do and for her to help out with,” Wischmeier said. “I think Andrea fits in our department very well. She’s in the right place here.”

Growing up in Pennsylvania, Zagata volunteered for 10 years at nursing homes.

“My mother was having knee surgery in the hospital, so I went over there to take care of her,” Zagata said. “That was what sparked the interest of me doing (volunteer) work after taking care of my mother.”

She said she didn’t mind not getting paid for her work.

“It’s important to me because I like helping out other people,” she said. “It’s an excellent opportunity for me to give back to the community. It makes me feel very happy.”

After her parents divorced three years ago, Zagata and her mother moved to Jackson County. Last year, she decided she wanted to get back into volunteering, and her sister, Melissa Wilson, helped make that happen.

“My sister had neck surgery, and she began her rehabilitation therapy here, and I would come in with her when she would have her therapy,” Zagata said.

Wilson told Wischmeier her sister was looking for an opportunity to volunteer, and Wischmeier met Zagata and helped her get started.

“The hospital … really felt strongly, especially with Melissa and Andrea after meeting her, that this would be a great place because we deal with people with varying degrees of disability or mental capability, so we thought this would be a good fit, “ Wischmeier said.

“If it wasn’t for my sister, I wouldn’t have even met Holly or any of the others around here,” Zagata said. “At first, I was a little bit nervous about it. But things have gone well ever since.”

Wilson nominated her sister and the rehabilitation services department for the Community Service Award. In her nomination letter, she talked about Zagata volunteering and how much she appreciated the opportunity.

That letter was sent to hospital administration, which shared it with employees when it was announced that rehabilitation services was named department of the month. Carla Ault, a hospital employee who also is a board member with The Arc saw the article and submitted the nomination to organization officials.

Since her sister played an integral role in setting her up to volunteer, Zagata asked Wilson to be her guest at the volunteer luncheon.

“I invited my sister since I was getting a pin this year,” Zagata said. “I was very happy.”

At the three-story rehabilitation services building off North Walnut Street, Zagata is the only adult volunteer. Wischmeier said teenagers sometimes help in the summer when they are out of school.

Zagata’s duties include cleaning rooms, stocking linens and helping the staff with other tasks. She has a checklist to help keep her on track.

“If I have some different little tasks, I’ll have her do those,” Wischmeier said. “She’ll cut out things for the speech therapy sessions for the kids to work with and help stuff envelopes. Just kind of helping keep things picked up is her huge goal.”

As a volunteer, Zagata attends annual training sessions on customer service, confidentiality and other initiatives. She also is included in any training with the 38-member rehabilitation services staff.

Zagata said she became certified in cardiopulmonary resuscitation and first aid when she volunteered in Pennsylvania, and she recently took those classes again with other volunteers through Schneck. That training is not required, but Zagata made it a priority.

“I just wanted to know what to do if somebody was choking or laid unconscious,” she said.

Zagata typically works the days in the middle of the week, and Wischmeier said she and the staff notice when she isn’t there.

“On Mondays and Fridays, we’re responsible for stocking our own areas, and we forget because we’re so used to having Andrea here,” Wischmeier said. “It’s like, ‘The cabinets are bare. Oh, it’s Monday or Friday and Andrea is not here.’ Or in the morning, if something is depleted, if we’ve gone through things after she has left, we have to stock them. You don’t think of that being such a huge asset, but it is.”

Zagata also is reliable, Wischmeier said. She has missed volunteering a couple of times because of inclement weather, and one time she had to stay home when her sister was sick.

“She rarely misses,” Wischmeier said. “It’s great to have someone so reliable, and she’s a volunteer. She takes it that seriously. She’s great.”

Patients also like having Zagata around. When they pass her in the hallway, they say hello. They also have seen her at Walmart and said hello.

“I’ve even ran into Holly at Walmart,” Zagata said, smiling.

When Zagata isn’t volunteering, she likes to write poems. Over time, she has written 50, and they used to appear in the newspaper when she lived in Pennsylvania.

“I started doing it just as a hobby,” she said. “I usually think of stuff to write about. It’s a good way to express yourself.”

During The Arc awards banquet, she read a poem about her volunteer service.

“Volunteering at Schneck Medical rehab services is worthwhile. It does the heart good to see others smile,” Zagata wrote. “Therapists are there to help patients in every way and hope that they are better with each passing day. The people I work with there are so very nice. Their hearts are filled with compassion and not ice.”

Zagata said she also likes to crochet, knit and read, but she’s not too fond of cooking.

She said her next goal is to earn a pin for 1,000 volunteer hours. She encourages other people to volunteer.

“If you have the opportunity to volunteer in a good environment, I say go for it,” she said.

At a glance

Schneck Medical Center Guild conducted its Volunteer Recognition Luncheon on Oct. 16 with the theme “Schneck Volunteers Warm the Heart.”

The volunteers were honored for the 15,752.5 hours they contributed to the Seymour hospital in 2014.

Specific volunteers honored were:

100 hours: Wanda Campbell and Susan Valverde

500 hours: Dave Meginnis and Andrea Zagata

1,000 hours: Bonnie Baxter, Sandy Cordes, Mildred Sease and Shirley Wesner

2,000 hours: Judy Duncan and Sue McKain

3,000 hours: Patty Elmore and Bill Fowler

4,000 hours: Norma Plummer, Genny Ruddick and Sue Sipe

8,000 hours: Ruth Miller

Author photo
Zach Spicer is a reporter for The (Seymour) Tribune. He can be reached at zspicer@tribtown.com or 812-523-7080.