As we embark on another endeavor, below is an excerpt from our very 1st Volunteer Spotlight. Thank you Scoba Rhodes!
Dear PVACC members,
After conversing with the chapter leadership, we would like to introduce you a new section of your bulletin called Volunteer Spotlight. Here we will write a story on one of our many extraordinary volunteers who help make the stay at the Long Beach VA Tibor Rubin Medical Center a pleasant one through their visits, assistance, food, drinks, and efforts. We spoke among ourselves and to some patients and quickly came to a consensus as to who should be the first person we can honor in this way. So, without any further delay, please allow me to introduce to you our beloved Norma (the coffee lady).
Norma Hanley was born Norma Elcantara Padilla in Mexico City. I will not give you the exact year, but just know that World War II was not yet over. It was during that war that her parents left Spain and settled in Mexico. If you know your history, Spain was hit hard during World War I and her parents had no intention of going through that experience twice in one lifetime. Fast forward 20 years approximately and you will see our Norma, young and bright-eyed working as a cashier in a little French café in Mexico City when an American family on vacation walked in to enjoy an evening dinner.
One of this American families’ sons was immediately quite taken with this young beautiful cashier, however his attempts to introduce himself fell on hopeless ears as this cashier could not speak a word of English, and our young American’s level of Spanish had barely gone beyond “Hola”. Undaunted was our young fella, as he then approached the manager and asked if he could speak English. Upon hearing yes, he politely asked if the manager would introduce him to this cashier whose name he learned was Norma, and he was James Hanley. It was a very brief encounter by anyone’s standards, yet somehow our little Norma decided to share her home address at his request and he said he would keep in touch. Norma said to me, she thought he was cute, but did not expect anything to come of it. (Is this story beginning to sound familiar to any of you old overseas duty playboys out there?)
To Norma’s surprise, and slight delight, a letter arrived in the mail from California approximately a month later. She needed to enlist the aid of her uncle whose English was quite proficient, and he would translate the letter for her. She would write back in Spanish with her Uncle providing a translation for our American friend. Then another letter would arrive a month later, and Norma would respond in kind. A few months later though, the letters piqued the interest of her parents, who after being brought up to speed decided that the writing could continue, but if this young man decided to step foot in Mexico again, he would have to meet the parents. (I promise you, I am not making this stuff up.)
A year later the family returned for another visit, and as promised, Norma brought him over to meet her parents. After what seemed like 2 hours, but was closer to one, her Father looked over to Norma, gave her a nod and a smile demonstrating his approval of this American. After more letters, remember no cell phones or email here, James invited Norma to visit him in Long Beach CA and she accepted. A little while later, and many letters and a few more visits, the world would witness our Norma Elcantara Padilla become Mrs. Norma Hanley, a permanent resident of Long Beach. Not too long after, Norma Hanley became an American Citizen.
James Hanley attempted to join the military during the Vietnam era, but a childhood battle with Polio would prevent his passing the physical exam. Thus, he would begin a long successful career as an engineer for Rockwell Corp, the company which would eventually become Boeing Corp. In 1987, our Norma began volunteering to serve hot fresh homemade coffee every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday morning to the spinal cord patients at the then Long Beach VA Hospital. James and Norma would build a family and raise children. This earthly happy union lasted 40 years. Norma had since decided to continue volunteering at the VA to honor his memory. One fact you may not be aware of is that Norma arranged the coffee, coffee makers, and creamers all be donated by the Masonic Temple of Long Beach. Yes, the Masons of Long Beach have been donating the coffee on Norma’s behalf for 30 years.
I hope this article has brought the same tears to your eyes as it has mine. As a former long-term inpatient, I know first-hand the joy Norma’s visits bring. It is not just the coffee though. It is the smile, the caring, the few minutes of conversation she willingly provides, her remembering that my favorite is French Vanilla, and brings it to me every time. Sadly, time takes its toll on all of us, we all move a bit slower, and breathe a bit harder as the years in front of us get fewer and fewer. So, Norma has had cut her visits from three days per week to two, so she is only here on Monday and Wednesday. Yes, the years take their toll, but love lasts forever. It was James’ love for Norma that brought her to America. It was Norma’s love for veterans that brought her to the VA, thus lighting the PVACC’s love for Norma. So I, Scoba Rhodes, ask you to cherish these visits from Norma Hanley from Mexico City. Because of time, that aspect of life that unfortunately keeps us moving on, those visits won’t last forever, and they can never be replaced.
Thank you Norma, but the bottom of our hearts. We love you and all you do.