Volunteering is second nature for Penny Tramontozzi, who grew up believing the best way to live a good life is to reach out to others. “I’ve always been taught that it’s not just about me,” she said.
When she and her family moved to Memphis for her husband’s job, she was excited to think she might volunteer at St. Jude. Although she started as a St. Jude volunteer, Miss Penny — as she is known at St. Jude — recently retired as a much-loved staff member who turned her work at St. Jude into a chance to change the world one smile at a time.
From her station at the hospital’s front desk, Miss Penny was one of the first people families would meet when they entered the hospital. “I was able to build the job based on the questions and the needs of the families and the kids, and that was a real gift to me,” she said.
A mother of three and grandmother to four, Miss Penny is taking a mental scrapbook of St. Jude memories with her when she retires to Omaha, Nebraska.
In addition to watching the wonder of healing at St. Jude, Miss Penny enjoyed offering encouragement to families just beginning their journey through cancer treatment.
“When a new family comes, that is a very big day and, to me, it was so important to walk them over to Registration and let them know, ‘You are not alone. When you walked through that front door, you inherited a whole new family. All of us here . . . are invested in your child getting better. All of us are going to try to make it better for you.” She often heard families express surprise and gratitude that they would never receive a bill from St. Jude for treatment, travel, housing or food.
Miss Penny loved seeing patients return as healthy grown-ups. And she recalled watching the virtual rebirth of a patient who had long been in a coma and could not even feed herself when Miss Penny first met her. But the patient made daily progress. One day she wished Miss Penny a good morning; next, she was feeding herself and, finally, Miss Penny looked up and saw the young lady standing in the lobby.
“I had never seen her walk, and it was amazing,” said Miss Penny, who made a spontaneous overhead announcement: “Guess what? Katelyn just walked from Rehab to the Patient Care Lobby. Way to go, Katelyn!”
Within seconds, the lobby was filled with patients and staff. “They all knew her story, and they were all watching her kind of come back to life, and it was amazing,” she said. Katelyn finished treatment in 2001, and Miss Penny loved seeing her on her return visits.
I was able to build the job based on the questions and the needs of the families and the kids, and that was a real gift to me.
The importance of truly being present for people was brought home to Miss Penny when she was invited by a family she knew to pay her last respects to a patient who had just passed away. Outside the patient’s room, Miss Penny found the nurses standing in a semicircle.
“They didn’t say a word, but their presence was the most powerful thing I’ve ever seen,” she said. “I learned two things: you don’t need words as much as people need your presence and your smile. And to be there at the toughest time really meant a lot to me, to see the reverence of the staff.”
Miss Penny is taking the spirit of St. Jude to Omaha, where she is already planning to volunteer at a children’s hospital.
“I never want to stop making a difference, because our kids have never stopped making a difference,” she said. “When we lose a child here, it’s devastating for us all, and I’ve learned that the best way to handle it and the best way to honor their lives is to keep going for all the kids who are still going through their journey.”