When you meet John Istle, the first thing you see is his smile.
Wearing a vibrant red vest and a “Just Ask Me!” button, this Air Force veteran and volunteer walks through the North Las Vegas VA Medical Center and greets every visitor with earnest enthusiasm.
As one of the VA Southern Nevada Healthcare System’s new Red Coat Ambassadors, it’s that first impression that he hopes will make veterans feel welcome when they come to their appointments.
“Lead with a smile instead of a frown,” Istle explains. “Talk to them. Everybody’s got a story. Just try to treat people the way you’d like to be treated, that’s all.”
The Red Coat Ambassadors are volunteers and staff that perform several jobs within the medical center; from physical assistance to informational guide to emotional support.
Their red coats (or vests) are easily recognizable, and identify the ambassador as someone who the veterans can go to for assistance. They also pass on patient comments and concerns to the Veterans Experience Service.
While the Red Coat Ambassador Program is a new initiative locally, it has seen great success in other locations around the country.
“The Red Coat Ambassadors provide a personal, positive first-impression for veterans, family members, and care-givers when they enter a VA Medical Center,” said Jennifer Gerrib, chief of VASNHS’ Veterans Experience Service.
Istle isn’t new to volunteering at the VA. He’s assisted in various roles at the medical center for five years, doing everything from transportation to working at the Fisher House.
“I like helping vets. I’m a vet, and when I go back to my time in service, I remember being helped myself,” he said. “I promised myself when I got to a time in my life that I could give back, I would.”
VASNHS started 2018 with eight Red Coat ambassador volunteers, but has since added a few more volunteers.
Sylvester Smith III, a two-tour Vietnam veteran who has volunteered at the medical center for more than a year, recently spent his first day as an ambassador shadowing Istle.
Between escorts of veterans throughout the halls, the two inspected the condition of the facility, from bathrooms to elevators, ensuring a clean, neat and orderly appearance.
“John’s showing me how to be thorough, the things to look for besides just the obvious things,” Smith said. “I have a lot of respect for him, he’s been around here for quite a while.” “I don’t think a man can be satisfied until he gives a little bit of himself for others.” Smith added stating that he is happy continuing his service to others as a Red Coat Ambassador.
Although anyone can make a difference volunteering, Istle says that there are certain qualities necessary to make a successful Red Coat Ambassador.
“I think you have to be gregarious, patient, very observant and have some stamina because walking these halls all day can be tiring. Most of all, you have to care.”
The Red Coat Ambassador Program is one of several tools that the VA hopes will enhance the overall patient experience. Gerrib says that the program has seen initial success, and received positive feedback from veterans. As the number of volunteers grows, she hopes to expand the program to VASNHS’ outpatient clinics as well.
“People may not always remember what you say or do, but they will remember how you make them feel,” she said. “This is important because the way we treat our Veterans today is why they will choose the VA tomorrow.”
For any registered volunteers who are interested in becoming a Red Coat Ambassador, contact the Veterans Experience Service at 702-791-9000, Ext. 14731. If you’re interested, but are not already a registered volunteer at VASNHS, contact Voluntary Services to join.