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Local pastor wins spiritual volunteer of the year award for New York state

Phil Owen
BOSTON — Twenty-seven years ago, Phil Owen stepped over the threshold at Elderwood Healthcare of Hamburg, to shadow a volunteer he knew from the church he leads, Berean Free Presbyterian Church in Boston. A few weeks later, the man was killed on his North Collins farm. Owen was called at the last minute, to say that service. The date? Easter Sunday.

“It was packed,” Owen recalled, of flying solo at Elderwood on one of the biggest days of the church year. “We held it in the lobby, for more space. There were wheelchairs lined up and people everywhere, even standing in the back. It was the largest crowd I’ve seen in 27 years.”

Since then, Owen has said a Sunday service for the residents twice a month, as well as visiting one-on-one throughout the week. His dedication to the residents is “unparalleled,” according to Elderwood Volunteer Coordinator Megan Freedenberg.

As a way to thank Owen for his years of service, she nominated him for the New York State Health Facilities Association Volunteer of the Year Award in the spiritual guidance category. On April 25, Freedenberg received a letter that Owen had won, days after Owen’s 27th anniversary at the facility.

“Over the past seven years, I have worked on Sundays when Pastor Phil and his wife Tonia come into the facility for service,” she said. “I have been lucky to become friends with them and have been witness to the difference Phil makes in the lives of our residents.

“He has become a trusted pastor and friend to the residents and their family members,” she continued.

“There have been many occasions where family members have requested Phil to provide final blessing for a dying loved one, to memorialize them at their funerals and he has also spent time keeping vigil with families at the hospital, if needed. He is compassionate, caring and has always made our residents a top priority.”

Owen said that “skimming the cream off the brains of these people is a real privilege and a great blessing.

“I try to visit the regulars every week, and I’ve done quite a few funerals. I lose a lot of friends. As people older, their own ministers or pastors retire or pass away, so we get attached to one another. It’s my burden to help prepare these people for eternity, and my greatest privilege is to get to share in their wisdom.”

Tonia Owen assists with the services and also visits the residents, often entering a female resident’s room first, to make sure it’s OK for her husband to come in.

“She really does the lion’s share,” Phil Owen said. “And she’s really a part of this award, as well. A lot of the folks [at Elderwood] don’t have family anymore, so we’re filling a void in their lives, which makes a difference in our lives. It’s a blessing to be able to make them smile, when there’s not always a lot to smile about.”

But it’s not all smiles in Owen’s ministry.

“When folks begin to decline, and we can visit them in the hospital or in their rooms, when they begin to pass, we weep with them, sing softly as they’re about to pass into eternity,” Owen said. “Those are difficult times, but it’s such a sacred privilege to be there. So many people have turned to the Lord and have peace in their hearts, at the end of their lives. That’s a blessing, to be able to help people that way.”

In order to apply for the NYSHFA award, Freedenberg first had to write a letter detailing Owen’s qualifications as “District Volunteer of the Year,” according to that organization’s detailed qualifications.

She had to remain anonymous throughout the process, to both the organization and the Elderwood group, as well as show that Owen’s activities at Elderwood were “devoted primarily, preferably exclusively, to the religious/spiritual aspects of nursing home residents” and “represent willing spiritual comfort for the residents,” in accordance with the NYSHFA regulations and theme for the year, “I Make A Difference.”

The activities coordinator sent in the application in January, and in March, she received a letter congratulating Owen as having won the district volunteer award. She said the facility’s residents were “excited” when Owen received that distinction, but more excitement was yet to come.

In April, it was announced that he had won the state category as well, and he was invited to the NYSHFA Annual Convention, held in Rye Brook, N.Y. in July. The award will be officially presented, at that time. Although Owen said he is not sure whether he will be able to attend that conference, he said he would rather Freedenberg be able to make it, since “it’s important to recognize what she’s done for the organization, the lion’s share of work she’s put in, not only in coordinating volunteers, but in completing this application process.

“It was a really pleasant surprise,” Owen recalled, of hearing he had won. “During the service that week, I noticed there was a table behind me, partially obscured. As I was offering the closing prayer, Megan unveiled a cake and balloons and brought out a plaque.”

“Our residents here at Elderwood at Hamburg are so proud of him and wept tears of joy when we shared the news with them,” Freedenberg added.

“Nominating Phil for this award, win or lose, was our way of saying thank you for being the absolute definition of what a volunteer should be.”

Elderwood can be found online at


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