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Baker, 94, is face of volunteerism at Porter Hospital

MIDDLEBURY — A hospital can be an intimidating and foreboding place for those who first cross the threshold looking for a sick loved one somewhere in a veritable honeycomb of rooms.
Porter Hospital is no impersonal honeycomb, but visitors can still be anxious — until they see Mary Baker. It is then that furrowed brows become less crinkled and destinations become more clear as Baker smiles reassuringly, issues a warm welcome and asks if she can help.
And she invariably can.
Baker, 94, recently logged her 10,000th hour as a Porter Hospital volunteer, time she has primarily spent greeting people just inside the front door and telling them how to get to where they need to go. It is a position that she has faithfully served in retirement for the past 32 years — a span during which some people have begun and ended professional careers.
“The important thing is to make people feel comfortable when they come into a hospital,” Baker said. “They need to feel welcome.”
Baker has been doing that well since first offering her services to Porter back in 1980. She and her husband had owned and operated Baker’s Jewelry Store at 47 Main St. since 1948, and decided to retire. Mrs. Baker, a trained nurse, wanted to give back to her community in a venue with which she was familiar.
She recalled that Porter, at the time, didn’t have a cadre of volunteers. The so-called “Gray Ladies” group — the equivalent of today’s “candy stripers,” though Porter’s wore gray uniforms — had ceased operation.
Baker decided to become the first in a new era of volunteers.
But Porter management at first proposed a different role for her.
“They wanted to orient me, get me back into nursing instead of volunteering, which I didn’t want to do,” Baker recalled.
She learned that new state and federal regulations would limit the functions she could perform as a volunteer. She would not be able to do such things as discharge, feed, bathe or even help patients into wheelchairs.
But Porter officials eventually found valuable use for Baker’s undeniable talents as a people person. They made her an admissions volunteer and greeter, now dividing her time between the admissions lobby and the main office.
She has also become a mentor to the scores of volunteers who have followed in her footsteps. Porter Medical Center now has a solid group of more than 180 volunteers working in several different departments, including the Helen Porter Healthcare and Rehabilitation Center.
Neil Gruber, director of the Helen Porter center, called Baker “The dean of South Street,” as she also resides in the neighborhood.
Baker now volunteers eight hours a week, and each shift brings her satisfaction. It comes mostly from being that first face that people see when they walk through the door, someone who can ease the stress by offering kind words, a cup of coffee or a shortcut to the department they’re looking for.
“When you come into the hospital for any sort of work, whether it’s lab work, or whatever, you’re apprehensive,” Baker said. “You have no idea what that test is going to show. So if a volunteer is there to smile and say, ‘Good morning, can I help you?’ that makes them feel so much better. And that’s the important thing.”
Baker knows what she’s talking about. She has been on the other side of the admissions desk. Her late husband, John — who once volunteered in the Porter mailroom — died 11 years ago after a short illness. Staying active has helped her stay occupied and feel needed.
And she is needed, noted Karen Herrman, Porter’s director of volunteer services.
“Mary has always been a mentor and a role model,” Herrman said. “She has seen a lot of people come and go.”
She has come to know just about every square inch of a Porter Medical Center campus that continues to grow and evolve. She has also seen — and is seeing — the evolution of Vermont health care as the state moves toward a single-payer system.
“It is a whole different world (than when Mary started),” Herrman said. “She has endured so many changes. Mary has adjusted to it and helped us move forward.”
Porter Hospital Spokesman Ron Hallman also heaped praise on Baker.
“Mary’s achievement is obviously historic, in terms of the number of hours she has contributed, but it is also inspirational, in terms of her community services for three-plus decades,” Hallman said. “She possesses an institutional memory that is truly unique and invaluable.”
Baker received her 10,000-hour pin at a June 2 recognition event for Porter volunteers. Other honorees included Jen Baldwin, 95, who has logged 8,000 hours.
Baker is likely to put her volunteerism record further out of reach. She has no plans to “retire.”
“Volunteers are always needed,” she said.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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