One day in Aiken 102 years ago, the wealthy Iselin and Vanderbilt families were playing a game of poker. Hope Iselin, the namesake of Hopelands Gardens, won the fateful game, and decided to donate her significant earnings toward the founding of a hospital for Aiken.

The hospital first opened its doors in 1917, and on July 19, 1928, an auxiliary group for the hospital was formed. Today, nearly a century later, the Hospital Auxiliary continues to support Aiken Regional Medical Centers.

"I love the auxiliary," said Flo McElmurray, president of the Auxiliary. "I love the opportunity to serve and meet new people… It’s just a wonderful service to the hospital and the patients and the guests."

McElmurray has been involved with the Auxiliary for over 20 years. Many of the volunteers today were recruited by her.

"Flo McElmurray... she told me I had to give it a try," said Patsy Capria. "I had never volunteered at a hospital before, and she said, 'You have to give it a try.'"

Capria has been a volunteer with the Auxiliary for years now. She enjoys it "immensely" and has experienced many memorable moments at the hospital, including a marriage proposal in the hospital's gift shop.

The Auxiliary has played an important role in the development of the hospital over the past 90 years.

Volunteers assisted with the first Donation Day in 1936 to collect supplies like bedsheets and linens, and acted as the nucleus of the Red Cross Motor Corp. during World War II.

The Auxiliary also contributed a significant amount of medical equipment to the hospital from its inception to the late 1970s.

Today, volunteers carry out a wide range of duties, such as operating the gift shop. They can also act as a liaison between the families and medical staff.

"I think that we all represent that kind of warm and fuzzy to all the people that come into this place that are scared to death," said Susie Player. "This is not exactly a place anybody really wants to be unless you’re getting a paycheck, so we provide the sort of comforting friend. I think that is one of the best things we do."

Player joined the Auxiliary due to an experience she had with a "pink lady" (auxiliary members wear pink on duty) when her father required urgent medical care.

"She really got me through that ordeal," Player said.

Because they are not treating patients, volunteers are able to spend more time with struggling families who have friends or family members in the hospital. They provide everything from moral support to informational assistance.

"You support people who are sometimes near death," said Luerine Green. "... Sometimes I consider myself just a glorified door opener. I enjoy what I do. I enjoy the people I meet."

The Auxiliary also provides education and scholarship opportunities to medical students across the state. Last year, the group helped raise between $15,000 to $18,000 in scholarships.

While some of the volunteers are retired and are looking for a way to do some good for the community with their free time, others are just starting out in their careers.

Alaine Sullivan, a senior finance major at USC Aiken, is an Auxiliary member.

"I think the most interesting part about it is that I’m the youngest on staff, but with that comes a lot of wisdom with the people I work with," Sullivan said. 

Sullivan said her time with the Auxiliary is a big part of why she has the most community service hours of any student on the USC Aiken campus. The hospital has also given her the chance to practice Spanish with some of the employees.

Other Auxiliary members, like Emmy Gragg, have been volunteering for decades.

"As long as I can keep walking, I'll keep going," said Gragg, who is 93 years old.

Kathy Schneid is in charge of assigning volunteers to different positions. She said she looks for traits such as honesty, integrity and a smile. 

"We're always looking for volunteers," Schneid said.

Although the Auxiliary has been around for a long time — nine decades and counting — its goals have rarely shifted.

"Our goal is always to serve, and to serve well, and to keep the organization going," McElmurray said. 

For more information about the Hospital Auxiliary at Aiken Regional Medical Centers, contact Flo McElmurray at flomcelm@aol.com.

Kristina Rackley is a general assignment reporter with the Aiken Standard.