Failing eyesight and a hearing impairment might slow
down most people, but not Helen Schmolke .
The trim, white-haired 77-year-old volunteers two days a week at
the Casa Maria Social Service and Medical Center in southwest
Houston, where she maintains her nursing skills and reassures
frightened patients that they will be cared for.
"We see the ones who fall in the cracks," said Schmolke , a
registered nurse for 50 years. "They come with a variety of
problems: cuts, broken bones, seizures, colds and flu, and some
chronic problems such as diabetes and high blood pressure. A
gynecologist visits twice a month to do cancer screenings and
The volunteer doctors contribute drug samples to the clinic
pharmacy, and monetary donations help offset the cost of
medications such as insulin and antibiotics. Patients pay nothing
for care or medication received at Casa Maria.
"We don't turn anyone away," Schmolke said.
Schmolke herself has been able to provide $6,000 over the past
three years, courtesy of an Exxon Mobil program that encourages
volunteerism by making grants to qualified organizations based on
hours its retirees volunteer. Schmolke is retired from Exxon, where
she worked 25 years in the medical department.
After retirement, she started volunteering. Schmolke was a Big
Sister in the Big Brothers Big Sisters program, and is still
involved with Volunteer Interfaith Caregivers, which provides
transportation and other services in 26 Houston ZIP codes.
But she found her true retirement calling in 1987, when her parish,
Holy Ghost Catholic Church, opened a free health clinic on
Saturdays. The operation was Spartan, Schmolke recalled. "We had a
room, a desk and boxes of medicine. We were from the bush country."
Casa Juan Diego, a Catholic organization that serves the immigrant
and refugee community, saw what Holy Ghost Church was doing and
offered to join forces. Casa Juan Diego acquired a house, then
volunteers remodeled it into Casa Maria. Now the clinic boasts
three examination rooms, a medicine dispensary, bathrooms, and
cubicles for taking histories and keeping records. The house is
also used for social services work, including a food pantry and
The clinic is open Tuesday evenings and Saturdays; Schmolke works
both days. Over the years, she's picked up Spanish to communicate
with her patients.
"I'm not fluent, but I can get along," she said. "What I've
learned, I've learned at the clinic."
She does the usual nurse jobs: assesses clients, takes vital signs,
runs labs, helps stitch up cuts, and gives injections and
medications. She's satisfied just to be helping others.
"They appreciate it so much," she said. "It doesn't really seem
And her fellow volunteers, doctors, dentists, nurses, translators,
people with no medical training, and med students from Baylor and
UT are a fun group, she added.
Schmolkes had her own health issues, including a ruptured eardrum
that resulted in hearing loss in her left ear, and macular
degeneration that's left her nearly blind in her left eye. The
problem has started in her right eye as well.
She stopped driving a year ago, relying on her fellow volunteers to
get her to the clinic on time. She jokes that since she's been at
the clinic from the beginning, "I'm still very capable. I know
where everything is."
But of course, it's more than that.
Schmolke doesn't waste time feeling sorry for herself, preferring
to make others comfortable and to help wherever she can. She'd like
to recruit more volunteers and support for Casa Maria.
"We could use more doctors, another dentist and another nurse and
lay people, especially those who speak Spanish, just to help with
interpretation and doing histories," she said.
"And, of course, we can always use donations," she said, laughing.
"We wouldn't turn that down."
Occupation: Exxon Mobil retiree; registered nurse volunteer at
Casa Maria Social Services and Medical Center, 6101 Edgemoor
Community connection: Casa Juan Diego is a Catholic-based
organization that serves the immigrant and refugee community with
free health care twice a week. For information on Casa Maria, call
713-869-7376 or visit www.cjd.org.
Quote: "How can you be bored? There's so much to do. It's
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