Two Columbus residents nominated for Georgia's Outstanding Senior Volunteer award

mrice@ledger-enquirer.comApril 28, 2013 

When they are at their posts, they are the first face folks see. They set the tone for the visit.

Jimmy Connally at Allen Elementary School and Barbara Jernigan at St. Francis Hospital have made such a positive impact in their organizations, they have been nominated for Georgia's Outstanding Senior Volunteer award.

Here's why:

Jimmy Connally

Connally, 72, broke his back 19 years ago when he fell off a 10-foot ladder and crashed through the ceiling of a beauty shop while working as an electrician.

Although he can't walk unassisted now, he still is compelled to be useful.

"I don't want anybody to feel sorry for me," he said.

Allen Elementary principal Angi Idel would see Connally ride his scooter and pick up cans around the neighborhood of the 23rd Avenue school. Three years ago, Connally stopped by and asked Idel permission for his helper to pressure-wash the black stain off the front of the school.

"I got tired of looking at it," Connally said.

That sparked Idel's idea last year: She was looking for a volunteer security guard to sit at a desk in the lobby and monitor the front doors. The school's office is designed without a view of the entrance.

Connally was the obvious choice.

"I didn't believe he would come every day, because that's a lot, but he said he would," said Idel, who nominated Connally for the award. "We have a camera in the office, so we see who they are when they come to the door. But when they walked in, they didn't see anybody. So this just makes people feel safer, and the kids just love him. I think every one of them hugs him when they come out of the cafeteria. He's just absolutely been a blessing for us."

The blessings go both ways.

"I learned a long time ago," Connally said, "the more you give the more you get."

He mans the front desk each morning but stays longer if the school needs him. He checks in visitors. He delivers forgotten lunch boxes and bookbags. He also leads the PTA's project to beautify the school out front.

After the December massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., a tearful Allen teacher told him, "If they come through that door, you're first."

"If they do," he responded, "so be it."

Connally isn't armed with a gun, just a friendly smile, but he does wear a black T-shirt emblazoned with "SECURITY," except on Fridays, when he dons Georgia Bulldogs gear -- despite Idel's preference for the Auburn Tigers.

"He's just a Godsend," Idel said.

"We have some awesome teachers," Connally said, "and we have an awesome principal."

Barbara Jernigan

During the past 26 years, Jernigan, 84, has donated more than 8,000 hours of volunteer service to St. Francis Hospital. She is among the two dozen volunteers who staff the patient information desk.

She meets and greets. She answers questions and forwards calls. She shares laughs and comforts cries.

Pat Carter, chairwoman of the patient information desk and member of the St. Francis Auxiliary board, called Jernigan and the other volunteers ambassadors for the hospital.

"On many, many, many occasions, we are the first contact someone has with this hospital," said Carter, who nominated Jernigan for the award. "So it is very important that we make a good impression.

Kathryn Fussell, director of volunteers services at St. Francis, noted Jernigan has gone beyond expectations.

"One time, she heard the emergency room was really busy, so she helped for a while there on Saturdays," Fussell said. "The emergency staff really appreciated that support."

Jernigan started volunteering at St. Francis two months after husband Paul Pope died in 1987. Six years later, she married former Columbus Mayor James Jernigan, who served 1987-1990 and died in 2001.

Volunteering, she said, was "excellent therapy" for her grief.

"It's getting out and seeing people and having the feeling of doing something instead of sitting and moping," said Jernigan, who lives in the Riverplace senior community.

Jernigan had been volunteering for two four-hour shifts each week until recently reducing her commitment to one, although she also substitutes. She had back surgery four years ago -- at St. Francis, of course -- and uses a walker to get around, but she still drives her car.

"Many people would have given up," Carter marveled.

Jernigan's dedication is an inspiration, Carter said.

"She is one of the most reliable volunteers that we have," Carter said. "She just enjoys her work so much."

"You don't do everything to get paid," Jernigan explained. "You do it because you love it and you want to help others."ABOUT THE CONTEST

Home Instead Inc., the franchiser of the Home Instead Senior Care network, sponsors the annual Salute to Senior Service. The program honors the contributions of adults 65 and older who give at least 15 hours per month of volunteer service in their community.

The highest vote-getter in each state will be considered for the national award. A panel of senior care experts will select the national winner.

Home Instead will donate $500 to each state winner's favorite nonprofit organization, and their stories will be posted on the Salute to Senior Service Wall of Fame. In addition, $5,000 will be donated to the national winner's nonprofit charity of choice.VOTE ONLINEVoting for Georgia's Outstanding Senior Volunteer is online only. For a link to the Salute to Senior Service website, click on this story at Voting began April 15 and ends Tuesday.

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