The Heart of a Volunteer: Bettye Zowarka

It was 1985, I was the Executive Director of Hospice of North Central Florida, a tiny hospice program in Gainesville, FL. when I was approached by a woman who lived in a small rural town to offer our hospice services there. Bettye Zowarka was very active in her community and volunteered for many groups. She simply did what was needed to be done, regardless of what city/state or federal agency did or did not offer in her area where three counties merged to create one small town.

Bettye was determined to have hospice offered to the residents of Keystone Heights and Melrose, Florida. I was determined to put her off until she lost interest. I did not want to expand our small hospice into a new rural area that was far from our office with little opportunity for growth. I was persistent in my tardiness in getting back to Bettye…she was more persistent in calling me to begin care.

“Just come out and give us a volunteer training, then we will at least know how to care for our own neighbors even if we don’t have hospice from you” she said.

“I appreciate what you are trying to do in your community, Mrs. Zowarka, but we simply do not have the resources to offer services or trainings to your volunteers; our staff is small and we don’t have anyone who lives out your way to provide nursing care, particularly after hours and on weekends.” My argument should have convinced her – but of course, it did not.

The next thing I knew, Bettye had enlisted a RN to volunteer her time to be the “hospice nurse” for her area. Wait a minute – now she was bringing on staff!? I had to tell her, “Just because you have identified a RN from your area that may be willing to volunteer as a nurse doesn’t mean she will meet our strict requirements to be a hospice nurse.”

“No problem, I’m sure you will like Judie Thomas, she works on the cancer floor at the hospital,” Bettye replied. “I’ll have her stop by your office to meet you.” Judie Thomas, RN, stopped by, and of course she was wonderful and very willing to be the volunteer nurse for any patients we may have in her area.

So far: Bettye…one; Patti…zero.

“We could not possibly begin this expansion without volunteers,” was my pitiful reply to this latest round with Bettye.

Again, she was more than ready for me: “No problem, I have identified at least 15 people who want to become volunteers.” Another point to Bettye.

“There is no meeting space large enough in Melrose for a volunteer training and we need a TV, VCR, and overhead projector and I just don’t think it’s going to work Bettye, I’m sorry”.

“No problem, I have already spoken with the Rector, who is going to let us use the church, and the Vice President of Clay Electric has volunteered to bring any and all Audio Visual equipment we need.”

So far: Bettye…three; Patti…minus zero. I know when I’m licked.

The volunteer training took place, with more than 25 people who were the most eager and willing group I ever had before or since. We began serving dying people in that small rural area because Bettye made it work. She had a contingency plan for everything; she kept extra supplies and medical equipment (wheelchairs, walkers and such) at her home to have easy access to what patients…her neighbors…might need any time of the day or night.

Her home became the center of hospice activity. We had team meetings, volunteer support meetings, donor luncheons and lots of laughter and love there. It was our first attempt to expand hospice into rural north central Florida. From what we learned in that experience we expanded to 10 other counties consisting of an area the size of Massachusetts.

I learned from Bettye that small rural communities have a tremendous sense of place and commitment to one another; they are made up of people like her who don’t know the meaning of “no” when it comes to meeting the needs of their neighbors. She knows how to get what her neighbors need and how to use unconventional methods to meet those needs.

Bettye receiving the NHPCO Volunteer of the Year from Torrie DiVitto

I have been gone from my position as Executive Director for many years, but Bettye Zowarka is still in Keystone, still volunteering and still inspiring others to volunteer. She continues to offer care and compassion to the dying citizens in her community. She continues to be a role model for so many on the true meaning of service. She was and continues to be an inspiration to me and the countless others she has touched with her kindness and example of caring for others. Bettye exemplifies the heart of a volunteer.

It’s National Volunteer Month, my heartfelt thanks to all who volunteer in service to others!

Post By: Patti Moore