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For most of the year, Jerry and Linda Broeker plan their activities and travels around their volunteer work at Niagara Falls Memorial Medical Center. Then winter nears, and Western New York's cold, ice and snow drive them south.

The retired Niagara Falls couple are like many area residents who, for health reasons or just a yen for warmer weather, take a break at this time of year. It's also a time when hospitals and other organizations that rely on volunteers can feel the strain of their absence.

"People leave or they don't want to drive in the winter . . .," said Karen Hurtubise-Pashong, director of volunteer services at Memorial Medical Center, where volunteers donated almost 70,000 hours of work last year. "Substitutes are critical, even if they can't commit on a regular basis."

The Broekers, five-year volunteer veterans, mainly serve as "escorts," accompanying patients to and from tests, in and out of surgery and out the door at discharge. Jerry Broeker also runs the coffee cart once a week. Both sometimes substitute as driver and assistant on the hospital's CARExpress van.

The van, which for $1 each way transports patients to and from the hospital and its Summit Healthplex medical offices in the Town of Wheatfield for appointments and tests, is a particularly critical service, Hurtubise-Pashong said.

"Without the volunteers we couldn't offer this to the public. Then they would have to rely on taxis, which gets pretty pricey," she said.

That's why a steady stream of volunteers is important.

"We all have our snowbirds," said Susan N. Siegel, Roswell Park Cancer Institute volunteer services director.

Siegel said volunteers who move south for the winter represent about 30 out of a 500-volunteer force.

"We're one of the fortunate hospitals that are able to cover their absences," she said. "We have wonderful survivors and family members who want to give back to this wonderful institution for the quality of care and treatment they receive here, so it really seems to work out."

Mount St. Mary's Hospital and Health Center in Lewiston loses about 20 to 30 volunteers in the winter but out of a smaller base of about 260, said Fred Caso, director of community relations and volunteers. That base is strong enough for the community hospital to fill in the important jobs, but it always needs more volunteers, especially on weekends, Caso said.

Dedicated volunteers are needed year-round in all kinds of agencies.

Kenneth Turner, director of emergency services for the Buffalo Chapter of the American Red Cross, said he doesn't have a big problem because of snowbirds. Only one of his volunteers winters in the south. But volunteers are always needed, especially in the winter months, which he called the "hot season" for Red Cross disaster relief. That's because of the increase in house fires and victims in need of assistance.

Wayne Drzymala, district director of donor services for the Buffalo Red Cross, said November through January are just as critical as the summer months both for blood and platelet donations and volunteers who help with donor services.

"It's much more difficult for us to be able to meet our needs at holiday time and during the summer months," he said.

The Niagara County Office for the Aging's home meal delivery program does feel the pinch, according to coordinator Thomas Chapman. Volunteers deliver 350 to 400 meals a day in rural areas of Niagara County so some driving is required. But as little as two hours a day once a week can make a difference, he said.

"It puts a strain on us and the volunteers we rely on who are already doing two or three days a week," Chapman said. "That's an ongoing battle, trying to recruit volunteers."

Wintertime is tough because that's when our count goes up because that's when seniors don't go out as often," he said. "It's not like delivering in the city, where you can deliver five or 10 meals in a two-block area. Some people drive 55 miles. We do pay a stipend and mileage, so that's an incentive," Chapman said.

Elizabeth M. Diachun of Niagara Area Habitat for Humanity said it notices the loss in two ways.

"The Habitat board has run into people who we feel would be very good, productive board members but they winter in the South, and they feel it would be unfair to us to get on the board," she said.

They also lose builders in the wintertime.


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