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'The Singing Volunteer' raises her voice for veterans

TAMPA - She says she really can't sing a lick. Carry a tune? Not on your life. But that doesn't stop Helen Gelvin, one of the most steadfast volunteers at James A. Haley Veterans' Hospital, from bursting into a spontaneous made-up song whenever the inspiration moves her. She does it in the hallways, the cafeteria, the supply room, the patient wings. "My father said not to ever consider singing unless I took some lessons," she says. " 'You sound terrible,' he told me. Well, I didn't take any. Guess I got the last laugh." Indeed. After 26 years of volunteer service — that comes to some 37,500 hours; not that she's counting — Gelvin has a well-earned nickname at the hospital.
"She's 'The Singing Volunteer.' But that's just part of it," says Mike Merino, a program support assistant. "She's a golden nugget of love and caring to all the veterans, their families and employees." This week, VA hospitals across the country celebrated National Salute to Veteran Patients. Haley did its part with a gift giveaway, assembling bags with treats, T-shirts and small favors for its hospitalized veterans. Gelvin thinks the salute week is a dandy idea, but she prefers to keep the spirit going all year long. When her health cooperates, she's at the hospital seven days a week. She's afraid she'll miss some of the action if she doesn't keep a regular schedule. She knows most of the staff and regular patients on a first-name basis. And if she doesn't, then you're "sweetie" or "honey." Not bad for a woman just shy of her 85th birthday. "If you come in for four hours, you get a free lunch. I've had a lot of free lunches," she says. Gelvin says she's always had a thing for veterans. In fact, she married three of them. All of those unions went bust. Her first mate announced he was still wed to another woman when their son was 6 months old. Her second dropped her off at the house one day, drove off and never came back. And the third one? That scoundrel ran off with a much younger woman. "I'm just not marriage material. I like men, just not marriage," she says, shaking her head. In 1985, after a long career as a bookkeeper, she decided it was time to high-tail it out of Burr Oak, Mich., population 836. "And that's if you're counting the cows, pigs and dead people," she says. She came to Florida for its sunny climate with $5,000 in her pocket. It was supposed to be a temporary stop, but she ran out of money and stayed put. She paid the bills by working at convenience stores. When a friend suggested that she volunteer at the VA hospital in her spare time, she stopped by to check it out. She never stopped coming. That was in 1986. "It's my home away from home now," Gelvin says. It's a 30-mile round-trip from her mobile home park in Land O' Lakes, but the distance doesn't daunt her. "I just drive fast to keep up with the rest of the crowd on the road." Camilla Thompson, chief of volunteer services, says Haley is a better place because of Gelvin. "She is caring, witty, delightful and funny," Thompson says. "We can always count on her to brighten everyone's day. She spends a great deal of time striving to be a beacon of light, lifting everyone's spirit around her." Her affinity for veterans aside, Gelvin does the work because of her appreciation for life. In 1963, she had a serious car accident that kept her in the hospital for a month. While recuperating, she counted her blessings for getting a second chance at life. "This volunteering is all in my heart," she says. "I'm giving back to the Lord for all that he's given me. He's told me that I need to be good to people. And these veterans have done so much. We have to show our appreciation." There's no telling what will prompt Gelvin to break into one of her personalized ditties. Zoning in on a veteran sitting forlornly at a table, eyes half-closed, she does her part to muster a smile from him. "If you're in a dream world," she croons, "I don't want to see you anymore. Because you're sound asleep, whether you know it or not. Ta da!" It doesn't always work. The veteran just stares at her. "Well, that's the thing about this advanced age," she shrugs. "I can say stuff or sing, whatever, and get away it." A few weeks ago she had some digestive issues and became a patient herself. After several days of hospitalization, her doctor suggested she move in to a nursing home where she could be monitored. Gelvin would have no part of that. The day after her discharge, she was right back at Haley, helping with an event in the auditorium. "Never gonna happen," says her son, Lee Robert Evans, of his mother ending up in an assisted-living facility. A retired tool-and-die technician, he's spending the winter in Naples, which means he can check in on her regularly. "She's too independent," he says. "And if you want to know, I think this volunteer work is what keeps her going. I've given up worrying about her because she's going to do just what she wants to do." Besides singing, Gelvin is known to break out in a jitterbug on a whim or give a bear hug to a stranger. She credits that "booming personality" to her Irish heritage. Any time she sees a potential audience, whether it's one person or 10, she goes for it. "Guess you could call me Mae West the second," Gelvin says. Then she thinks about it. "Only I don't have her boobs."

mbearden@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7613

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