As you walk the halls during the day at Eastern Long Island Hospital in Greenport, it’s hard to miss the volunteers dressed in salmon-colored jackets manning the front desk, shuffling throughout the facility and handing charts to nurses.
But the ELIH Auxiliary — founded in 1905, one year before the hospital itself was built — doesn’t just lend a helping hand to the facility. Member Linda Sweeney calls it ELIH’s “backbone.”
“These ladies do a tremendous amount for the hospital,” said Ms. Sweeney, who is also ELIH’s executive director of foundation and community relations.
Last year was particularly significant for the 112-year-old organization. In 2016, the group’s 225 or so volunteers pulled in a whopping $400,000 in donations for the hospital, a sum that comprised a large bulk of ELIH’s fundraising efforts. The haul represents the most money the organization has ever raised in a single year.
In addition to fundraising, Auxiliary members help out at the hospital every day, setting up charts for nurses, assisting administrators with their work, greeting people at the front entrance, directing visitors throughout the building and running the small “Corner Shop” near the front door.
The Opportunity Shop in downtown Greenport is also operated by the Auxiliary; proceeds from the thrift store make up much of its fundraising efforts. The store recently expanded to create space for furniture sales.
On Tuesday morning at the store, volunteer Terry Ketcham placed a green sweater into a box. She’s been volunteering at The Opportunity Shop for so many years, she couldn’t remember offhand how long she’s been an Auxiliary member.
Ms. Ketcham said she’s constantly surprised by how many items are donated to the shop.
“People are generous,” she said.
Later this month, the Auxiliary will be honored with the North Fork Chamber of Commerce’s Community Service Award at the group’s annual gala. Chamber president Tom Scalia admitted that when they were initially nominated, he wasn’t aware of all the group does for the hospital. After visiting ELIH, he said he understood.
“There’s a whole lot of what they do for the hospital and for the community that I don’t think people know about,” he said. “Basically, they are the support group for the hospital.”
Mr. Scalia said the chamber was impressed by the dedication of Auxiliary members, some of whom have logged tens of thousands of hours of community service over the course of a few decades.
“Most people don’t work that long in one place, let alone volunteer in the same place,” he said.
Auxiliary president Helene Fall said the group is honored to be recognized for their hard work and hopes the award raises awareness about their mission to support the hospital.
Nora Busch, a member for more than 20 years, was more blunt.
“It’s about time!” she said with a smile.
Despite recently receiving a record-setting number of donations, 2017 is already shaping up to be a challenging year for the loyal volunteers. Membership numbers are down, Ms. Fall said, and new faces are key to keeping the Auxiliary — and the hospital — running.
“All of this takes people,” she said.
Part of the group’s challenge to attract members lies within its image, Ms. Fall admitted. The Auxiliary is colloquially known as the “Ladies in Pink,” although it counts men among its ranks.
The people who make up the Auxiliary’s three branches across the North Fork are more than just retirees. They are lawyers, nurses, financial planners, social workers, city managers, teachers, insurance salespeople and more.
“People have no idea what we bring to the hospital,” Ms. Fall said. “We have people who come from all perspectives. There’s so much more to us than people think.”
One assumption the public has gotten right is the close-knit friendships between volunteers.
“It’s really like a second family,” said Ms. Busch, who has volunteered more than 21,000 hours to the group.
Despite the vast amount of time Ms. Busch has dedicated to the Auxiliary, she isn’t its longest-serving member. That honor goes to 93-year-old Toni De Meo, who has volunteered with the group since she moved to the North Fork in 1986. The Auxiliary’s chairwoman of volunteer services, Ms. De Meo has logged 22,000 hours — the most in the group’s history.
“I’m just trying to keep up with her,” Ms. Busch joked.
Ms. De Meo said the friendships within the group extend beyond the hospital. Some members play cards or go out to lunch, even when they’re not volunteering. In doing so, they’ve formed an impromptu support group that helps each other through good times and bad.
When Ms. De Meo’s husband died in August — one month short of their 70th anniversary — her friends were there to help ease the burden.
“I had somebody else who was upset one day, another volunteer,” said Auxiliary member Lynda Biedermann. “She just needed a hug.”
“We have a lot of hugs around here,” Ms. De Meo added.
Top photo: Nora Busch has been an ELIH Auxiliary member for more than 20 years. (Credit: Paul Squire)