This Texas woman just turned 100. But it's her life of service that will amaze you.
Six decades, over 18,000 hours and 100 trips around the sun add up to a lifetime of service for dedicated volunteer and centenarian Elaine Kuper.
Kuper, who celebrated her 100th birthday in November, devoted 61 years to volunteering at Texas Children’s Hospital before retiring in 2015. She is the longest-serving volunteer at the largest pediatric hospital in the U.S.
The Buffalo, New York, native, who relocated to Houston when she was 12, started volunteering at the hospital just over two weeks after it opened in February 1954. Her level of dedication even led her to take Spanish lessons so she could better guide Hispanic and Latino families around the hospital.
“I just loved being with people,” Kuper told USA TODAY. “It’s the best. There’s no hospital like it."
Wearing many hats to serve others
Dressed in her red-and-white uniform, Kuper supported the hospital’s patients, families and staff through various roles such as serving at the snack bar when it was volunteer- and women-run, filling a 45-year stint at the hospital’s information desk, delivering mail and leading tours of the facility.
Kuper also served as a charter member of Texas Children's Women’s Auxiliary.
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“There were 10 of us that were the first to start volunteering, and I lasted longer than anybody, but I loved it so much,” Kuper said.
After her retirement in 2015, she still devoted her time to Texas Children's volunteer services department when she could.
“Elaine was always somebody who was just our living historian,” said Paige Schulz, Texas Children’s assistant vice president of patient support services. “She’s somebody that was so delightful to greet volunteers and staff, and really made everybody's day better.”
Adding a special touch to snack bar orders
Before Texas Children’s introduced McDonald’s, Kuper says her first volunteering assignment lasted 14 years serving sandwiches and drinks at the snack bar.
Kuper became known for greeting physicians not by name – but by their sandwich orders, which she recalls to this day.
“I had three favorite doctors that came every day I was there; we’d call them Mr. Tuna Fish, Mr. Grilled Cheese and Mr. Roast Beef,” Kuper said, adding that Mr. Roast Beef preferred mustard and pickles on his sandwich.
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A unique friendship with a unique patient
David Vetter, who was known as the “bubble boy,” was born without an immune system at Texas Children’s in September 1971. Vetter had a rare genetic disorder called severe combined immunodeficiency, and he lived his entire life encased in a plastic bubble environment to protect him.
“I’d have tours walk by and wave to him and say hello,” said Kuper, who noted that Vetter’s bubble – through which doctors could touch him using only arm-length gloves – grew in size as he aged.
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“I was with him from the day he was born to the day he died when he was 12 years old,” Kuper said.
Kuper’s daughter, Laurie Bricker, told USA TODAY that her mother was the only member of the hospital’s auxiliary invited to Vetter’s private funeral in 1984.
“His family invited me to lunch many times, which was very sweet, but I think the most pointed thing was the day he died,” Kuper said.
“(David’s mother) came up to the information desk and said, ‘I held him in my arms at 12 years old for the first time; I never knew his hair was so soft,’” she recalled.
Honoring a dedicated lifelong volunteer
Kuper’s lifelong commitment to volunteerism has not gone unrecognized. Texas Children’s nominated the mother of two for the Mayor’s Award – which she won – for her service to the hospital. The hospital’s volunteer services suite is also named in Kuper’s honor.
“In 2000, 15 years before she retired, she was also given the recognition of being a lifetime member of our institution and exemplified for her legendary status,” Schulz said.
Texas Children’s president and CEO Mark Wallace gifted Kuper with a kind letter and flowers for her 100th birthday, Bricker said.
“From the bottom of my heart, thank you for everything you did to make us a better hospital,” Wallace wrote.
Kuper says she'd be "lost" without the opportunity to help others. “I've always loved volunteering anywhere I can,” she said.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 100-year-old Texas woman dedicated 61 years to volunteering