Most definitions of the word “gift” revolve around the giving of an object without expectation of something in return. Most gifts are also given to help generate happiness, or provide a salve against sadness. Indeed, gift giving is so common in cultures worldwide that economists study the notion of gift economies.
Diane Wilson manages a tiny niche in such an economy – the Gift Garden shop at Pullman Regional Hospital. And of course, in the true spirit of giving, she volunteers her time, dating back some 30 years to when she worked in the gift shop at the old hospital on the campus of Washington State University.
“Why do I volunteer?” she said, contemplating the question while opening the shop one morning. “I just kind of was raised in a volunteer family that was always doing things for people.”
She credits her father for setting an example.
“My dad was a great guy to go help anybody in need.”
People in hospitals – whether they be patients, family, friends, doctors, nurses, employees or even one of the 30 gift shop volunteers Diane oversees – often need comfort. And gifts, ranging from flowers and get-well cards to nick-knacks and stuffed animals, can both soothe sorrow and heighten happiness.
“I just express my thoughts and caring to them,” Diane said of people who enter the shop while waiting for word about a loved one who might be injured or seriously ill. “If they want to talk, we talk. And of course we give suggestions about what they might buy.”
All proceeds from the Gift Garden go to the Pullman Regional Hospital Auxiliary—which in turn supports patient healing and comfort.
Over the past 45 years, the auxiliary has donated more than $475,234 toward the purchase of items aimed at supporting patient comfort and meeting healing needs.
“I'm in here a lot, because I have to unpack and mark all the merchandise and get it out on the shelves,” Diane said. She and the other volunteers rotate one at a time around three-hour shifts Monday through Friday.
“You get one volunteer and two customers in here at one time,” Diane said of the tiny shop's confines, “and we're crowded.”
Soda and candy, if the truth be known, are probably the most popular items sold, Diane said. But such treats get customers into the shop, where the inventory is displayed to encourage sales.
“The majority of our customers are people who work here,” Diane said of the Pullman Regional staff's generosity. “The employees are a big source of our income.” For example, when she was hospitalized two years ago for knee surgery, flowers and other items from the Gift Garden adorned her room.
“And I got a cougar, I got one of these little guys,” she said, petting a WSU Baby Butch stuffed animal. “So they remembered me.” Diane said she's also been known to augment the shop's coffers when relatives and friends are in the hospital.
“I've bought tons of stuff for people I know. Lots of new moms come in from our church,” she said. “And when patients come in, everything I buy comes from here. For older people, I try to do flowers. And for the new mothers, there's all kinds of things to buy for the new baby.” The majority of the inventory comes from commercial vendors, but handmade items are also donated by local people.
Born in Logan, Utah, Diane came to Pullman in 1976 with her husband, Robert Wilson, and their two children, Rob and Janet, who are now 44 and 39, respectively. Diane, 73, and Bob, 76, celebrated their golden wedding anniversary last June. He is a retired WSU professor of veterinary medicine who still does some teaching at the university's Spokane campus. Diane taught elementary school for seven years before opting to stay home with the children. She and Bob have two grandsons who love to visit the gift shop when they visit, Diane said, as do most young people.
Grandparents waiting for grandchildren to be born are always good customers. “We sell a lot of Teddy Bears for new babies. You know, everybody has to have a new Teddy Bear.”
Flowers are also a mainstay, especially for older patients, Diane said. “Our fresh flowers are delivered to us from the three florists in town. They each take a month at a time. It's a very nice service they do for us because flowers are a very big thing in a hospital.”
Cards and Willow Tree figurines that express a variety of sentiments are popular, as is jewelry and newer items like pillows designed to help mothers nurse newborns.
“And you have flamingos,” said a customer who happened into the shop.
“Yes we do,” Diane said, pointing out that the Gift Garden's stuffed animal menagerie includes not only flamingos and cougars, but a variety of zoo animals and even a red Elmo. “And of course, we carry the WSU baby clothing, which is very popular.”
At a conservative 10 hours a week over the past 32 years, Diane has volunteered about 156,000 hours to Pullman Regional Hospital. At an average minimum wage during that period of around $6 an hour, she's given more than $93,000 worth of herself to helping others.
So what's her compensation?
“I get the enjoyment of being involved in the community and helping people,” Diane said, suggesting that she speaks for all the Gift Garden volunteers. “People come in and are happy to find some little token that helps make someone else happy. And that makes me happy.”