We arrived shortly at the North Carolina State Veterans Nursing Home after 2:00 p.m. on a Saturday afternoon in May – the twenty-five volunteers attending a Sai retreat on Black Mountain. We had made a special trip to honor the vets at the nursing home on Memorial Day by visiting with them, entertaining them with songs, and treating them to ice cream. Our audience was about 20 veterans, mostly in wheelchairs, and a few of their family members.

Our leader introduced us: “We wanted to come visit you in honor of Memorial Day.  The VA is close to my heart.  As a VA doctor, I see people like you every day.  If you’re wondering who we are, we are a service organization who follow our Master.  He speaks of Love; the value of Love.  So we wanted to come share with you and give our thanks for your service.  We’d like to begin by singing the National Anthem.”

Some of the veterans began singing along, though they could no longer stand.  One of our volunteers picked some songs from an app on her I-pod, and our group stood together, singing one song after another, choosing songs that the residents would know, so they could join us: “When the Saints Go Marching In”, “Home on the Range,” “You Are My Sunshine,” and Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land.

In a short time, it seemed that some of the vets were looking more alert and alive than when we’d first come, as if the music had revived them.  No wonder there is a whole profession called Music Therapy.  Music prolongs the onset of Alzheimer’s, soothes the soul, and is a wonderful pain reliever.

Surprisingly, one of the songs, “Ain’t Gonna Study War No More”, received an especially heartfelt response. This was an anti-war song back in the ‘60s, but got a totally different reaction now in 2014. It seemed to connect all of us, heart to heart, with its words of peace.  Many vets sang with great enthusiasm, “I’m gonna lay down my sword and shield, down by the riverside,” and clapped in time to the music.  One veteran was tapping one of his legs with one hand, and tapping his other leg with his other hand, really getting into the music.  If he hadn’t been in a wheelchair, he’d be dancing.  The song seemed to connect all of us, heart to heart, with its words of Peace.  Amazing.

Another veteran wore an “ARMY” ball cap.  I bent over and whispered in his ear “We’re not professional singers, you know.” He smiled and said, “No, you’re not.  Not by a long shot!”  We laughed together at his frank sense of humor.  He enjoyed reminiscing about the Army.

In the meantime, during the song fest, some of the volunteers had been dishing up ice cream and serving those seated around the table. One or two “groupies” trailed us from the main room, in wheelchairs. Perhaps they were following the love….or maybe it was the ice cream cart being pushed down the hall as we sang, “All you need is love. Love is all you need.”

One spry little lady caught my attention, so we had a conversation.  It turned out she had been an Operating Room nurse in World War II!  She was soon going to be 91 years old, but her mind was just as agile as her body.   When asked how she liked living at this facility, she replied, “Oh, I love it here.  I do some volunteer work, visit some of the veterans.  You can’t leave some of them alone in wheelchairs, so I look out for them.  I’m the watch dog!  I want to make them as happy as possible, for their last remaining years.  You know, I take them a little candy bar, or just sit and keep them company, write letters, just little things,” she confided. It was a startling revelation to me, to think she was still selflessly serving others at her age.

One of our volunteers had also been a nurse for many years, so these two were introduced to each other so they could share experiences.

Later, after their visit, I asked our volunteer how he had enjoyed visiting with the lady veteran. He said he had a very good and joyful chat.  Since they were from similar fields, they had a great connection.  He was also a veteran from the Vietnam war and had worked as an Operating Room Nurse. He found it very touching that the lady veteran still continued to keep her nursing vocation alive by serving her fellow nursing home residents. What an honor to have met her!

Today’s service was a one-time project, and because most of us volunteers live out of state and would never see these veterans again, initially we remained fairly reserved.  The vets were quiet or shy at first, too.  So, you might ask, what was achieved? Ultimately, what was accomplished by singing and serving ice cream?

It brought us JOY.  The Veterans were happy to be recognized on Memorial Day; we were happy to serve them. We were solemn-faced for the National Anthem in the beginning.  But as time passed, people lost their shyness and started interacting.  Smiles and laughter spread throughout the room. Some faces became radiant.

When asked to describe their feelings, volunteers said “peaceful,” “blessed,” “grateful not to be in the limelight,” “sweet like ice cream.”   One volunteer said he was “Happy, because the veterans are opening up to us.”  The guitar player said, “I’m just happy to be here,” and he looked happy! Our leader said, “It touched my heart,” and his eyes glowed.

There was a transformation that took place during the service and everyone became JOYFUL, and the JOY transformed our bodies and attitudes. The veterans became more alert; they smiled, laughed, sang, and clapped.  So did all of us.

Through many years of service, I am beginning to understand that transformation takes place within each of us, perhaps more for the server than the served.  For me, the transformation has been the expansion of my heart.  I seem to be progressing from loving the One to loving the Many, and to loving Each One.  It’s a journey from “selfishness” to “selflessness”.

“The purpose of life is to grow in love, expand that love, and to merge with God who is Love, and this is best done through service.  There is no discipline like service for the eradication of the ego.” 

Sai Baba

These words seem to have a special meaning for me now.

The spiritual journey is a gradual process, but through service projects like this we can get there eventually, and experience some JOY along the way.

This project also showed me that even in the space of 2-1/2 hours, even during a busy retreat schedule, even traveling 30 miles offsite from the retreat, service can be rendered, enjoyed, and complete strangers  can connect to recognize or remember that we are all One family.  It showed me that this whole experience can happen in the space of two hours.  This sounds crazy, but it’s as if service is beyond space and time, as if it has no limitations.  Perhaps it is because when we serve, we live only in the present moment, focusing on the NOW.  But the JOY that we attain from the service lasts forever.