Left to right: Caryl Kochen, Darcy Billinkoff and Caron Bernstein were three of the many Operation Warmth volunteers over the years. (photo from JWI-BC)
More than 40 years ago, Sylvia Handlesman, one of our B’nai B’rith Women (now Jewish Women International-B.C.) members, brought us a wonderful service project she remembered from her earlier years in England – providing home-baked refreshments, tea, coffee and juices to visitors and staff at hospitals on Christmas Eve and Day.
On checking with the B.C. Children’s Hospital, Sylvia learned that the only cafeteria serving visitors and staff was closed over Christmas to allow staff to celebrate the holiday with their families. The hospital assigned us a small room with a fridge, long table and a number of carts to be loaded with home-baked goodies and beverages that added to the festivities of the season. Even Mr. and Mrs. Santa Claus and their helpful elves enjoyed the repast.
The heart-warming project – Operation Warmth – was both a service and a social gathering for members and family members who volunteered for three-hour shifts, while enjoying coffee, a snack and greeting and visiting with other volunteers as they came during shift changes. Some, who could not walk the halls, stayed in the room filling trays, loading carts and making coffee.
Originally, our members only served refreshments to the visitors and personnel in the children’s wards – due to dietary restrictions, patients were always excluded.
Because of the success of Operation Warmth, the hospital soon requested that our members also cover the B.C. Women’s maternity section.
Since then, on Christmas Eve and Day, JWI-BC family members and community volunteers have traveled through the halls of these wards with loaded carts. A table on the main floor in the area close to the elevator was also kept supplied with goodies for visitors and staff. With time, the original coffee and home-made baking was supplemented with fruit juices, mandarin oranges and other treats donated by local stores and bakeries.
It is impossible to express the appreciation the volunteers received from the hospital personnel, visitors whose children were unable to go home and expectant or newly delivered mothers who were also hospital bound for the holidays. The only years when Operation Warmth was not provided took place when Christmas fell on Shabbat or a snowstorm made travel too dangerous.
With time, most of our original volunteers were no longer with us and, with them, has gone much of the fantastic home-baked cookies and squares that once filled the plates on the carts.
For a number of years, Operation Warmth was organized by Zmirah Rosenthal, with the invaluable assistance of her longtime friend, Ena Salamon. Although Ena was not a JWI-BC member, she was responsible for a major share of the planning that made this project so successful. One year, she even organized the two-day program completely on her own.
Last October, the new Teck Acute Care Centre opened at B.C. Children’s Hospital. As well, hospital staff make every effort to get patients and families home, if only for the day or two, over the holidays. And patients on the maternity wards also have a much shorter hospital stay. As a result of all of these changes, the Operation Warmth program is wrapping up after four decades.
“It has been a privilege and honour to work with the B’nai B’rith Women, now Jewish Women International, in the planning and delivery of this annual event,” said Pat Gillis, manager, volunteer resources, B.C. Children’s and B.C. Women’s Hospital. “My sincere thanks to Zmirah and Ena, who have been the driving force for an event that brightened the days of families from all across British Columbia for so many years. As our facility changes, we want to take this time to thank the many community volunteers who have been a part of our history on Oak Street.”
JWI-BC is also appreciative, and thanks the staff and volunteers of the hospitals and the many individuals and their families who helped make Operation Warmth a success for so many years.