Volunteer’s work touching lives, healing hearts

By Jason A. Smith
Times Correspondent

For nearly half a century, Soundra Willingham of McDonough has given her time to visit patients with serious health concerns. The reason she does so, she said, is to alleviate their suffering as much as she can.

“Most of it’s been in the nursing-home setting,” said Willingham, 73. “A lot of times, their families don’t come, or don’t come that often. But they see me three days a week from, like, 10 in the morning to 3 in the afternoon. It’s very important to me because with the family, it’s sometimes emotional for them to be there and see their parents leaving, but they would like for someone to be there with their parents.”

Soundra Willingham (from left) is a longtime volunteer at Westbury Health and­ Rehabilitation Center in McDonough. Her family includes her granddaughter, Taylor Blakney, as well as twin grandsons Justin and Jay Blakney, who sometimes accompany her to the nursing home. Special photo

Willingham’s volunteer work has included stints in New York, Pennsylvania and Delaware, prior to her moving to Henry County 21 years ago. She has been a fixture at Westbury Health & Rehabilitation Center in McDonough for 10 years, part of her 46 years of volunteer work in the healthcare industry.

Willingham sees patients at Westbury every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. She visits them in their rooms one-on-one, takes them to doctor’s appointments or to lunch, and spends time with them during activities at Westbury. She also takes residents to church in a chapel at the nursing home when needed.

Willingham visited patients in her spare time while working for a law firm, until her retirement. She then focused all her energy on volunteering at nursing homes and hospices, both of which she continues to do today.

“We have hospice patients at Westbury, and I’m the only hospice volunteer there,” said Willingham. “Most of them are in their room, very quiet in the bed, and I’ll just sit with them, massage their hands and talk to them.”

Willingham’s volunteer efforts haven’t gone unnoticed, even at the state level. She was chosen as Volunteer of the Year for Georgia for 2016-17 by the Georgia Healthcare Association.

She said personal experience within her own family intensified her desire to reach out to nursing home staff and patients.

“I started volunteering before my father became ill, and then he went to a nursing home,” Willingham told the newspaper just before taking a Westbury resident to the doctor. “I saw the need for people at the nursing home. The staff is great, but they can only spend so much time with the residents, because they have other people to take care of. But with me, I can spend an hour or more with the residents.”

In addition to her regular visits, Willingham also employs her talents as a seamstress by making pillows for residents at Westbury.

“They’ll stuff the cotton in the pillows, and then I’ll sew the pillows and they’ll put them on the bed,” she said, adding that she does alterations on residents’ clothing when necessary.

Willingham’s family includes a son and two daughters, as well as eight grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. She acknowledged that two of her grandsons - seven-year-old twins Justin and Jay - sometimes accompany her to see residents at Westbury.

Willingham fondly recalled the first time she brought them to the nursing home.

“They just jumped right in and started talking to the residents, and they always give them a hug,” she said. “They’re very kind little guys. They’ll go into the room for a one-on-one, they’ll talk to them, and they’ll tell them, ‘Oh, you have on a pretty dress,’ or ‘Your hair looks so nice.’ The residents love it.”

Willingham also emphasized that some residents at the nursing home are much younger than she is, and that visiting with them puts life in perspective for her. She said volunteering gives her “such a good feeling,” and that it makes her grateful to wake up every morning for another day.

Above all, Willingham said she would like to be remembered for her kindness toward residents at nursing homes.

“I try to give my all to them, whatever they need,” said Willingham. “They thank me every day. I think it was a calling that I do this. Everyone thinks that I do a great job, and I really love doing it. It just warms my heart when I do something for them. If they’re happy, I’m happy.”