By Michele Munz
She called Fisher House wanting to volunteer, thinking her experience as a secretary could be useful in the 20-room house that's free to out-of-town patient families. Instead she was asked if she could make waffles. On Wednesdays.
"I thought, 'OK, I'll make waffles'," said Gabrielle "Gay" Dyck, 61, of Chesterfield.
That was over a year ago. Ever since, Dyck has spent every Wednesday morning cooking Belgian waffles for the residents, whose loved ones are being treated at the area's two veterans hospitals.
She has come to realize how much the weekly waffles mean to the families, apparent by the reaction on the only two Wednesdays she's missed.
"We had families waiting in the kitchen asking, 'Where's the waffle lady?'" said house manager Rachael Fernandez. "I had to have the housekeeper break the news that the waffle lady wasn't coming."
Dyck's husband, Edward Dyck, retired as a major after 20 years in the Army. He trained to lead tank operations and was gone for weeks at a time, said his wife, but he was never in a war. Never injured.
She wanted to volunteer at the Fisher House as a way to help families who weren't so lucky.
"I don't have firsthand knowledge of being alone for a year or having a husband in a combat zone," she said. "I'm thankful my husband is healthy and wasn't in harm's way."
Gay Dyck's Wednesdays start at 7:45 a.m. in the house's spacious kitchen. She dons a denim apron with an American flag and assembles ingredients, utensils and toppings like clockwork.
"Would you like a waffle?" she asks with a bright smile as guests wander down from their rooms. Some she sees for the first time, others have been there for weeks.
"You're still here?" she asks Anthonette Wolken, 76, whose husband served in the Korean War and was paralyzed from the waist down in a logging accident in 1960. It's Wolken's third week at Fisher House. Her husband took an unexpected turn for the worse after driving from their small town in Kansas for his checkup. He is going to need rehabilitation, she said, and she's unsure how much longer they will stay.
"If we could get home to where the kids are, he could have a lot more company," Wolken said as Dyck mixed the batter. "I think he's getting depressed."
Some guests just want to make small talk, and others don't want to talk at all. Some want a shoulder to cry on.
"We have laughed together and shed some tears together," Dyck said. "I mostly listen and just give them a hug if they need a hug."
Fernandez said the group meals are ways to relieve stress and bring guests together to socialize. Siblings Margie Olds, 61, and Bonnie Forst, 63, volunteer to cook lunch on Taco Tuesdays. There used to be Fried Rice Fridays. The alliteration makes it easy for families to remember the schedule.
"It's just things that they can look forward to on a weekly basis," she said.
Wolken said it breaks up the monotony of trips to the hospital. "It's such a lift," she said.
Fernandez seeks more volunteers to bake or cook; she'd like to revive the Friday meals. Gardeners care for the grounds and a vegetable garden, and Fernandez is looking for a scrapbooker to make templates for families to add photos to a house album.
Since Fisher House opened two years ago, the house manager has seen how volunteering isn't always what some expect, which is why she appreciates Dyck's commitment.
"There are weeks when Gay doesn't have anybody show up, and for her to come back week after week and not get discouraged — it's great," Fernandez said. "She's part of our Fisher House family."
Dyck said she's learned that making waffles isn't as simple as it seems for someone who is away from home and exhausted with worry.
"When you say you're going to volunteer and make breakfast for people, you think, 'Oh that's fun,' and it is. But it's a very serious thing," Dyck said. "I don't expect a lot of cheery hellos or thank-yous."
After Wolken finished her breakfast, she walked to the counter and stood close to Dyck. Wolken looked her in the eye and gave her a heartfelt thank you for the waffle.
Dyck told her, "I hope things go well for you."
Wolken was positive, "Oh, I'm sure they'll get better."
At first, Dyck tried to make chocolate waffles with marshmallow sauce, blueberry waffles and even omelettes. But families just wanted the plain ones. Those are special enough.
"You'd think I was serving something precious. I guess it is to them," Dyck said. "They are so loving and grateful for these waffles. Really."
"Holidays, birthdays & anniversaries have been celebrated with tears and smiles with people who truly understand what the other person is experiencing."
- Kamryn Jaroszewski