By Jody Steinberg
This Christmas Eve, hundreds of Jewish Atlantans will once again “go to bat” at hospitals and assisted living homes around Atlanta to make the holidays more enjoyable for the workers whose jobs never take a holiday.
Since 1980, B’nai B’rith International’s “Pinch Hitter” program has dispatched thousands of volunteers on Christmas Day to allow more employees to spend the day with family or to ease the job for those who have to work. The hands-on volunteer work might be “non-essential,” but the Pinch Hitters who do it bring essential holiday cheer, says Harry Lutz, Pinch Hitter chair.
“The staff at the hospitals is just thrilled to have us there,” says Lutz. “They don’t all want to be there on Christmas Day, but when our volunteers come bounding in ready to help, it reenergizes them and it helps them. It gives everyone a good feeling, and I think it helps improve the relationship between the Jewish community and the Atlanta community.”
Strengthening relationships between Jewish and non-Jewish communities has been the primary goal of B’nai B’rith (Children of the Covenant), since its founding in 1843. The organization operates in more than 50 countries, advocating against anti-Semitism and promoting human rights and humanitarian issues.
Pinch Hitters launched more than 50 years ago to support Christian medical and emergency personnel obliged to work on their most observed holiday. It began in Atlanta in 1980 and has grown successfully ever since.
This year, Lutz will send close to 200 pairs of helping hands to 10 facilities across metro Atlanta, including DeKalb Medical Center, the Veterans Administration Hospital, Summer’s Landing in Dunwoody, Brighton Gardens, Emory John’s Creek and Wesley Woods at Emory.
Because Christmas this year falls on Saturday – the Jewish Sabbath – Pinch Hitters will work three- and four-hour shifts between 7 a.m. and 5 p.m. on Dec. 24, in a slightly scaled-back version of the annual community service program. Although some volunteers may prefer to work on Christmas Day, they cannot do so under the auspices of B’nai B’rith, or it would violate the Jewish organization’s policy to respect the Sabbath by not sponsoring activities that involve work of any kind. “B’nai B’rith tries to be sensitive to everyone,” Lutz said.
Pinch Hitters cannot do the jobs of skilled clinical workers, but they can lessen the load. Pinch Hitters will tackle the non-skilled jobs that keep the facilities running – working in cafeterias, laundry, reception and nursing stations; leading games and interacting with assisted living residents or delivering flowers, welcoming guests and stocking stations at hospitals.
Last year more than 250 Pinch Hitters went to 13 locations on Christmas Day. For some locations, volunteers even underwent tuberculosis tests and inoculations to comply with safety precautions.
To protect patient safety, hospitals only accept adult volunteers, while assisted living and long-term care facilities welcome families with children, who can be a ray of sunshine for lonely residents that miss holiday routines.
Pinch Hitters have worked at Summer’s Landing since it opened 12 years ago, said Fred Glusman, director of kosher services. “We’ve had the same people coming for years and they’re wonderful – they call Bingo and help serve meals,” he said. “Volunteers interact with residents so they have some camaraderie – and some of them know the residents anyway, so it’s really nice.”
Brandt and Ginny Ross began Pinch Hitting almost 30 years ago in Huntington, W. Va., and have continued since moving to Atlanta 20 years ago.
They both volunteer in hospitals regularly. Harry, a business broker, volunteers at the Heart Center at Piedmont Hospital. Ginny, a retired surgical nurse, volunteers with her former employer, DeKalb Medical Center.
They say they love to volunteer as Pinch Hitters, because it creates so much good will.
“It’s just something that we’ve always done on Christmas Day,” Brandt Ross said. “It’s an amazing group of people, it really is.”
The Rosses, who live near Wieuca Road, where Buckhead and Sandy Springs meet, have done jobs ranging from working in the kitchen to filing papers and cleaning beds in the emergency room.
“The nice thing is you try to do things so that the regular employees don’t have to – whether it’s filling pitchers, distributing phonebooks or whatever it is, everything is of some help,” Ross said. “It’s a nice gesture, and everybody is always so appreciative of people coming out and giving their time.”
Ross would like to see even more volunteers visit nursing and assisted living centers in future years. “That would be really appreciated by the residents,” he said. “It’s a pretty lonely day for most people.”
Lutz and his wife, Roseanne, have been “pinch hitting” since the early 1990s when their daughters – teens at the time – wanted to do it.
Lutz, who has chaired the program for almost a decade and welcomed assistant chair Sandy Sarlin this year, spends weeks preparing for the big day from his home in Dunwoody. He secures coordinators, organizes locations and finds out their needs, recruits and assigns volunteers, and raises money. The event costs at least $2,500 each year.
The Lutzes spend most of Pinch Hitter day making rounds.
“We visit each facility to make sure things are going well, shake hands, say ‘hello,’ and keep things running smoothly,” he said.