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Radiating friendship: Hospital volunteer knits her way into patients' live

Jerry Klimek of Osakis shares a laugh with hospital volunteer Alice Jahnke, left, and another patient who isn't pictured, on Friday at Alomere Health. (Ross Evavold / Echo Press)1 / 3
Alice Jahnke flashes a smile at a patient at Alomere Health last Friday. (Ross Evavold / Echo Press)2 / 3
Alice Jahnke concentrates on her knitting in the waiting room of the radiation oncology office at Alomere. (Echo Press file photo)3 / 3

Walk into the radiation oncology department at Alomere Health and you're liable to hear the click of knitting needles. Alice Jahnke could be knitting an afghan, one the hospital is likely to award via a drawing to a patient. Or she could be making a stocking cap, which she doles out on a more regular basis to hospital visitors.

Since April 20, 2001, when she began volunteering in the department, she has made 55 afghans, 831 caps and 405 bonnets for patients.

As significant as those numbers are, they are only a small part of what makes Jahnke such a valuPued volunteer. Her job is, quite simply, to be a friendly face in the waiting room, someone for patients to talk to, and to be there if they need her.

"Their job is to sit in the waiting room and do nothing," said Vickie Olmschenk, volunteer services director for Alomere. "You do nothing, but you do so very much."

Undergoing radiation can be a difficult time for people, some of whom show up with loved ones, and others who are going through it alone. Jahnke helps take their mind off of it, and helps them get through it.

"She's phenomenal. People feel comfortable sitting next to her and talking," Olmschenk said, noting that she brings qualities that are indescribable, and a presence that few possess. "She's been there for so long, she senses whether somebody wants to talk or doesn't. She times it perfectly."

Gary Deick of Alexandria is one of many who looked forward to talking with Jahnke when he was undergoing radiation treatments.

"She's very soft spoken, and just likes to talk to you," said Deick, who was the recipient of two stocking caps. "It was just the idea that she's there in person, comforting people. She's such a nice gal."

Knitting for decades

Jahnke, who in January celebrated her 90th birthday with her cats in her home on Lake Ida, is very much a product of how she was raised in southern Minnesota and the time she grew up.

"My mother and dad were very concerning people," she said. "They liked people, and liked to visit with people. We had very kind parents, very wonderful parents."

She picked up her social skills from them, and her love for knitting dates back to that time, too. It is something she has been doing for decades.

"I started knitting in eighth grade," Jahnke said, recalling when she would knit for the Red Cross during World War II.

"It was sad to see people going into service, not knowing whether they were coming back," she said. Jahnke had a lot of cousins in the service, and they exchanged a lot of letters.

"Everybody was concerned about everybody else."

She was an elementary school teacher for 31 years, mostly in Glencoe. Her husband was from there, and she had his brother in class her first year. That brother-in-law celebrated his 80th birthday recently, and Jahnke attended.

"Not many 80-year-olds can say their fifth grade teacher came to the party," she said.

Her in-laws owned a farm on the north end of Lake Ida, and Jahnke and her husband would visit on weekends, camping in the pasture.

"The cows and us lived there for awhile, and deer and a lot of wildlife," she said. The couple eventually built their retirement home and made it permanent. "I like the lake, and found the people up here are very warm."

After retiring she worked as a substitute teacher for a few years, including at Garfield. She had nice things to say about the parents there, and enjoyed the extra years being around children.

"I miss the kids," she said.

Kids is a term she also uses for the patients and staff at Alomere, and when you're 90, that term applies to just about all of them.

Forging bonds

Cancer had touched a lot of folks she knew even before she volunteered to work with those in need of radiation.

"Sometimes they're really depressed, and you understand it," she said, noting that she treats them as she would anyone else. "Cancer patients are just normal people, and they deserve a lot of credit."

She enjoys the celebrations when someone has completed their treatment, which include ringing a bell on the wall, balloons and hugs.

Jahnke has been blessed herself to be in good health entering her 10th decade.

"I've been disgustingly healthy, I guess," she joked. "That's why I've lived so long."

She no longer remembers the circumstances surrounding her volunteering at Alomere.

"I don't have the foggiest idea," she said, also downplaying what she does: ("Not a darn thing, really. I sit here and visit with people.").

But ask Alomere Health CEO Carl Vaagenes about Jahnke and he sings her praises.

"Alice is a very special volunteer who has become a pillar in the radiation oncology unit," he said. "She is a friendly face happy to strike up a conversation during what is considered a milestone moment in a patient's life."

Jerry Klimek of Osakis is one of those patients who has becomes friends with Jahnke.

"She's a good-hearted lady, and she makes people feel good," he said.

One way she does that is through the caps and afghans — "They're so pretty," Klimek said — she makes for patients. Jahnke is two months ahead for the monthly afghan giveaways, and has another three started at home.

Dedication

As the oldest volunteer at Alomere, Jahnke sets an example for the others.

"She makes a commitment to be here. She's dedicated," Olmschenk said. "And I know the staff down there just loves her."

Administrative assistant Tracy Thomes stressed that Jahnke makes people smile and laugh, including her.

"People sort of glom onto her. They just love Alice," Thomes said. "She always makes an effort to go over and talk with someone."

She also is known to bring in molasses cookies from Elden's on Wednesdays, not to mention flowers for birthdays, Easter lilies, poinsettias for Christmas, and cakes she has baked.

"You never see her in a bad mood. She's always happy," said registered nurse Ashley Goebel, adding that Jahnke makes you strive to be a better person.

If she lived in town, Jahnke says she would volunteer every day, instead of two mornings a week. As someone who lives alone, this gets her out of the house and gives her people to talk with.

"This is my day brightener," Jahnke said.

But she doesn't live in town, or near any of her three close relatives, a son in Montana and two grandsons in Rochester. A planned move back to Glencoe will get her closer to her grandsons. She has "very dear friends" living in a senior apartment complex there, and is on a waiting list to join them.

It will be a sad day for Thomes when Jahnke is no longer there.

"She's our grandma, part of our family. We worry about her. We will miss her if she ever does move," Thomes said. "She's more than just a volunteer. She genuinely cares."

SIDEBAR: Appreciation Week

Since 1974, National Volunteer Appreciation Week has been a way to celebrate the valuable work done by volunteers. This year the week is being observed on April 7-13.

Each year in honor of its 140 or so volunteers, Alomere Health holds a volunteer appreciation luncheon. This year the event will be on Tuesday, April 9, at Alexandria Golf Course.

"We are truly grateful for our volunteers and all they do for Alomere Health," said Alomere Health CEO Carl Vaagenes, noting that they help make the hospital a place of healing in the community. "The volunteer program contributions to Alomere Health are valued in the hundreds of thousands of dollars."

Alice Jahnke, who volunteers in the radiation oncology department, and Dale Graff, who is stationed at the information desk, will each receive a pin for reaching 5,500 volunteer hours.

In the 15 years that Vickie Olmschenk has been heading up the hospital's volunteer services program, she says only one other person has chalked up more hours as a volunteer.

"We have the best volunteers. We're here to make a difference, and we do make a difference," Olmschenk said. "I'm fortunate. I have the best job in the hospital because I get to work with the volunteers. They come because they want to be here. They are awesome."