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Volunteer who started veteran-visiting program recognized by Governor General

Reta Mulholland Keeler 'humbled and honoured' to receive Sovereign's Medal for Volunteers

When Reta Mulholland Keeler began visiting veterans at the hospital, she quickly realized there was more work to do.

She was doing the visits on behalf of the Royal Canadian Legion in Orillia. The veterans enjoyed the experience, but when it was time for them to leave Orillia Soldiers’ Memorial Hospital and move into a retirement home or assisted-living facility, they worried the visits would stop.

“I found that many of the veterans there would say, ‘I’m not going to see you anymore.’ You could tell they were upset about it,” Mulholland Keeler said.

So, she started a program that would see members of Orillia’s Army, Navy and Air Force Veterans (ANAF), Unit 400, visit veterans wherever they went after leaving the hospital. The ANAF and the Legion are both involved with the program.

The visits were about more than simply socializing, though that aspect was appreciated by veterans.

Mulholland Keeler and other volunteers would find out what the veterans’ needs were and relay that information to either the ANAF or Legion. Sometimes it led to the organizations purchasing needed supports, such as wheelchairs, for the veterans.

The visitors also helped veterans understand ways Veterans Affairs Canada could assist. Some of them were unaware such opportunities existed. Others were, like Mulholland Keeler’s father, “too proud to ask.”

She joined the ANAF in 2009 while caring for her dad, James Mulholland. A charter member of Unit 400, he was a flight engineer on a Lancaster bomber while serving with the Royal Canadian Air Force’s 419 Squadron during the Second World War.

“He was particularly stubborn and independent,” Mulholland Keeler recalled. “As his health was failing, he hung onto his independence.”

That prompted her to start the ANAF visiting program in 2012. As a result, she was recognized recently with two awards.

On July 30, she received the Minister of Veterans Affairs Commendation. Then, this past weekend, she was presented with the Governor General’s Sovereign’s Medal for Volunteers. The medal “recognizes the exceptional volunteer achievements of Canadians from across the country in a wide range of fields and pays tribute to the dedication and commitment of volunteers,” according to the Governor General’s website.

“I’m very humbled and honoured,” Mulholland Keeler said. “We don’t volunteer for things because we want praise. There’s a need out there and that’s what makes you do more and more.”

She made the trip from British Columbia — where she now resides and continues to visit veterans — for Sunday’s presentation at Unit 400, and she was able to reconnect with members of the visiting team, with whom she shared the recognition.

“I’m just so proud of them,” she said. “I hope that this inspires them.”

When she formed the team and put out a call for volunteers, Joan Goldsmith, Don MacKenzie and Len Thorne were quick to sign up, and they’re still at it.

The team has made more than 5,800 visits to veterans in the community. Between the ANAF and the Legion, there have been more than 2,900 hospital visits.

OSMH has a system in place to identify patients who are veterans. Mulholland Keeler wants to take it a step further and have retirement homes and other care facilities follow suit so members of the visiting team can meet with them. She encourages veterans’ families to let those facilities know.

“They look forward to the visits. It brightens their day,” she said.