Mary Hilton Cross remembers when patients' families were not allowed past the emergency room doors. She remembers seeing family members anxiously clasping their hands in the waiting room. Back then her job was to calm them in any way she could: handing out blankets, delivering updates from the doctor or providing a listening ear.
Cross, 80, said she offered that ear to many patients during her more than 40 years of volunteering at St. Anthony's Hospital. Cross' ability to listen to patients was one of the reasons she recently was chosen as the Florida Hospital Association 2010 Volunteer of the Year.
"She's one of those people that can listen quietly," said Chris Navarro, who manages the volunteers at St. Anthony's. "It's that quiet strength that makes her so successful."
Florida Hospital Association director of communications Sarah Byrd said there are 186 FHA member hospitals in Florida that can nominate a volunteer. Among other criteria, the Volunteer of the Year must serve "as a role model of hospital volunteerism."
"Mary came to mind immediately," said Navarro, who has been at St. Anthony's for 11 years. "It was a no-brainer."
It seemed that Cross' decision to start volunteering at St. Anthony's in 1965 was also a "no-brainer."
"I guess it just came naturally," said Cross, a St. Petersburg native who comes from a family of volunteers. She said her father did pro bono work as a lawyer, and her mother volunteered at a home for unwed mothers. Cross inspired two of her daughters to volunteer at St. Anthony's.
"When you volunteer, you receive back more than you give," Cross said in her soft voice.
Besides St. Anthony's, Cross also volunteered at Pinellas United Way, the Children's Home Society of Florida and others. Her tasks at St. Anthony's ranged from pushing a candy cart to working in public relations. She currently serves as a parliamentarian on the St. Anthony's Auxiliary board and volunteers in the gift shop.
She said the gift shop opened in the 1960s and started with only $1,600 and one cashier. Last year the shop raised $110,000 for the hospital.
The gift shop was not the only change Cross has seen during her time at St. Anthony's.
"They are more responsive to the families now," said Cross, as she remembered the seven years she spent updating family members on the status of their loved ones in the emergency room during the 1970s.
Navarro considers Cross an important part of the St. Anthony's family. Cross embraces that role.
"I love to bake!" Cross' eyes lit up as she shared her recipe for York mint brownies, which she often brings to the hospital.
From inspiring the St. Anthony's family to her own, Cross also encouraged others to volunteer.
"It's just a matter of listening," she said. "You learn so much."