Unparalleled Commitment: Etta Schiller's Story
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Etta Schiller, 100, has volunteered at Weiss for 42 years.
Watch Etta Schiller—Someone You Should Know, for an interview by Harry Porterfield of CBS Channel 2.
On Tuesday mornings, Etta Schiller wakes up before the sun rises. She combs her strawberry hair, dresses in a pink volunteer jacket and leaves her Lincolnwood home at 6:30 a.m. Half an hour later, she pulls up to Weiss Memorial Hospital.
Schiller, 100, has volunteered at Weiss for the past 42 years, initially inspired by friends who’d been patients at the hospital. And she doesn’t plan to stop anytime soon. “No! Why should I stop? When I stop breathing!”
In her current role, Schiller works at the front desk answering phone calls and questions, and directing patients to their appointments. “It keeps your mind sharp,” she said. “You meet people from all walks of life. I’ve learned that a smile means hello in any language.”
Sometimes, fielding questions at the front desk requires more than a smile. Schiller, fluent in Yiddish, one day found herself using words she had learned from Weiss patients, some of whom come from Spanish, Polish and Russian-speaking backgrounds. When one man approached the front desk every few minutes to ask when his turn would come, Schiller finally instructed him to sit (“sah-deet”) in Russian. And the man sat—until he was called for his appointment.
“Etta loves the challenge of the front desk. She’s one of my favorites,” said Terry Tuohy, director of volunteers at Weiss. Tuohy added that on Schiller’s volunteer application from 1971, Schiller had written that she could work Tuesday mornings. Every Tuesday morning since then, she has done exactly that.
Schiller graduated from Northwestern University in 1934 with a degree in social work and went on to have two daughters. “Even then she was unique,” Tuohy said. “She is always willing to learn something new, and has kept herself contemporary with what’s going on in the world.”
Volunteering at Weiss over the years has meant different things at different times. Schiller has comforted forlorn patients in their rooms, watered plants and served as impromptu translator. As a former social worker, she also arranged for counselors if she thought one would benefit a patient.
"Every day is a learning experience,” Tuohy said of volunteering at Weiss. “It gives people some depth in their lives because the experiences can be so amazing.”
Schiller said the work makes her “feel like a new person.”
And it’s not only patients who feel Schiller’s impact. Other volunteers feel it, too. Francis Chavin has volunteered at Weiss for the past four years but said, “If not for Etta, I would have quit cold.”
When Chavin first decided to volunteer, she resolved to go wherever the hospital needed her most, which led her to the front desk. However, having never worked in a demanding, interactive environment, Chavin grew overwhelmed by the constant ringing of telephones and flow of people who required directions, assistance and information. “Etta took me under her wing and taught me everything.”
Schiller’s effort paid off. “Fran has proven to be an asset to us. The front desk works at a team, and we all help where needed,” Schiller said.
The work keeps Schiller occupied and active. It also speaks directly to her philosophy on life: “If you want to live a long life, you have to keep busy.”
For more information about becoming a volunteer at Weiss, visit Volunteer or call (773) 564-7294.