For more than 30 years, Regina O'Connor, 99, has served as a friendly face greeting patients and their families at the front desk of Sisters of Charity Hospital in Buffalo. Since shortly after she retired from her job with U.S. Customs in 1983, O'Connor has volunteered weekly at the same time on Tuesdays, a comforting and familiar presence for the people who have known her for three decades at the hospital.
Although she has made herself known to visitors at Sisters, as well as neighbors in Buffalo's Allentown neighborhood, where she currently lives, O'Connor established a long legacy of volunteer work and helping others throughout her life and in her family. She raised four children with her late husband, Thomas, and is now a grandmother of 14 and great-grandmother of 18, with three great-grandchildren on the way.
"When I retired, I just decided that you need people, and you have to keep busy, to a certain point. I had lived at St. Mark Parish in North Buffalo. A lot of my good friends were members of the Ladies of Charity there. I thought, 'Well, that's the first thing that I'll do. I'll sign up with the Ladies of Charity. We met every Wednesday morning at 9 o'clock Mass. We went down into the bottom part of the school, and we had breakfast every Wednesday morning. Different people took over requirements for breakfast."
Through her work with the Ladies of Charity, which she kept up for "years and years," she found out that some of the other women she befriended via this program were volunteering at Sisters Hospital. "You're with people again, so I just joined the volunteer group. I've been doing it ever since," O'Connor remembered, noting this took place in about 1984. Before this, she worked in the federal building in downtown Buffalo for about 15 years, beginning when her youngest child was attending St. Mark School.
O'Connor, who was born in Buffalo, was the only daughter of four children. She attended Sacred Heart Academy in Buffalo, graduating in 1934. During the Great Depression, she recalled how times were tough and college was not an option. "It was a sad time. I remember people, particularly men, marking on the front sidewalks of houses. My mom would make them lunch or breakfast, and they'd sit and wait there on the steps in our back hall. They were hard times. I think, to this day, you don't forget things like that."
In 1942, she married Thomas O'Connor, who was in the 174th National Guard, and his military service led the family to move to the West Coast. Her parents' legacy of having three boys and one girl continued. Thomas passed away in 1974. Since O'Connor was a patient herself at Sisters Hospital when she had surgery, she has also been on the other side of the desk and vouched for its high quality of care.
In her years at Sisters Hospital, O'Connor noted it has been a "nice, easy place" for people to volunteer, where people are "all very helpful and cooperative" and it is easy for people to fit in. Since the 1980s, she witnessed how much has changed in the medical field since technology has progressed. She uses a computer at the front desk, although she does not have a cell phone or use a computer at home. She also recalled how there used to be many Daughters of Charity serving in the hospital, but they are no longer there.
Carrie Sette-Camara, manager of public relations at Sisters Hospital, said many hospitals in the Catholic Health system have held retirement ceremonies commemorating sisters who made health care in the diocese possible. Sisters has a heritage corridor, which opened in 2015, dedicated to the history of both the hospital and the Daughters of Charity. Today, their legacy continues via efforts of staff and volunteers.
There are 1,800 volunteers at Catholic Health, and 450 of them volunteer at Sisters Hospital. "We have them all throughout the hospital on patient floors, in administration and obviously the front desk. Even today I saw about a dozen alone," said Sette-Camara of these volunteers. "Regina is very admired here. People definitely know who Regina is, and I think, through the years, we've had families come in - whether it was a mom giving birth to her baby, and then that child growing up and giving birth."
According to Sette-Camara, having such a constant presence at the front desk lends a sense of warmth and familiarity to a hospital setting, which is often seen as cold and unfamiliar since patients who come are injured, ill or in pain, and their family members are anxious and stressed out about their loved ones. "To see a familiar face sitting at the front desk there, it lends some comfort," Sette-Camara said.
When asked for advice to give to a young person interested in getting involved in community service, O'Connor mused, "It's just nice to feel as though you're a part of the community. Take a little interest in the community and give a little bit of your time, because that time might be important to other people, but to you, the time is to give something. It makes you feel as though you've done a little worthwhile."