La Mesa residents Joan and Seymour Zeenkov, volunteers with Sharp HospiceCare, were recently honored with a 2014 Healthcare Hero award from the Grossmont Healthcare District (GHD).
The Zeenkovs are dedicated volunteers with Sharp HospiceCare. In what other hospice programs worldwide have recognized as a model program, the Zeenkovs were part of the beginning and still remain today as one of the most ardent supporters of the Sharp HospiceCare Memory Bear program.
Memory bears are plush, huggable bear dolls created entirely from favorite garments worn by a deceased loved one. It might be a favorite shirt, nightgown, uniform or even a Christmas sweater or faded pair of jeans that a surviving family member will give Joan to create the bear. Then, Joan will cut the garment apart and sew together the little bear, sometimes wearing an accessory, such as a tie or scarp also provided by the family.
At the moment of presentation, when the memory bear is received by the grieving family, it is always an emotional experience. Clutching a memory bear that is made from a loved one’s recognizable clothing can draw a flood of favorable memories. It can also bring comfort and play a key role in the grieving process.
Each bear represents a special story. For example, this past fall, Joan met a mother who had lost her son to suicide. The mother delivered to Joan several of her son’s uniforms. With compassion and understanding, Joan consoled the grieving mother with a listening ear and comforting presence. This particular bear was a rush order and was completed in time for Christmas.
Since April 2002, when the Zeenkovs began volunteering with the memory bear program in honor of a deceased daughter who received care at Sharp HospiceCare, more than 12,000 memory bears have been created by about 200 different sewers. Today, about 25 people are volunteer sewers, mostly East County residents, and Joan is one of the few remaining original sewers. Joan has personally sewn more than 925 bears, representing more than 7,200 hours in volunteer service. The couple, married for 59 years, also have accounted for monetary donations to HospiceCare.
The impact of the HospiceCare’s memory bear program has been felt worldwide. At the beginning of the program, memory bears were made only for children who had lost a parent, grandparent or close relative. However, today, bears are made for husbands, wives and anyone of any age. In the past, bears were made for the families of the Challenger Space Shuttle and 9/11 first responders.
Natives of Philadelphia, the Zeenkovs relocated to San Diego in 1958. Seymour worked as an engineer at General Dynamics and drove from Pacific Beach to Kearny Mesa on a dirt road that is now Balboa Avenue. They remember a time when there were more dairy farm cows than people in Mission Valley. They have resided in their current La Mesa home near Northmont Park since 1959.
Sharp HospiceCare provides comprehensive end-of-life hospice care, including specialized palliative care and compassionate support to patients and their families. Hospice homes are located in La Mesa and Del Cerro. A third home in the South Bay is currently being planned.
Now in its eighth year, GHD’s Healthcare Hero awards program recognizes and rewards volunteers for significant contributions to healthcare in San Diego’s East County region. GHD is a public agency that supports health-related community programs and services in San Diego’s East County region.
The Grossmont Healthcare District’s 2014 Healthcare Hero awards were presented at a luncheon on Wednesday, May 14, at Steele Canyon Golf Club in Jamul.