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St. Louis Jewish Light

A nonprofit, independent news source to inform, inspire, educate and connect the St. Louis Jewish community.

St. Louis Jewish Light

A nonprofit, independent news source to inform, inspire, educate and connect the St. Louis Jewish community.

St. Louis Jewish Light

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Nancy Wasserman Giannasi won’t slow down, and that goes for her dog, too

Bill Motchan
Nancy Wasserman Giannasi

When many people think of retirement, they think of slowing down. Not Nancy Wasserman Giannasi. After 34 years as an occupational therapist in the Special School District, she wasn’t ready to stop making a difference.

In the past two years, Giannasi, 64, has volunteered at Ranken Jordan Pediatric Bridge Hospital, gone through therapy dog training, started volunteering with BJC Hospice, and is set to begin training for the Paws 4 Reading program.

“I’ve always volunteered, but I was really able to take off with my volunteering once I retired,” she said. “I started volunteering for Ranken two years ago, and I’ve just taken off with them.”

Giannasi applied to the program in July 2021, when Ranken Jordan started taking volunteers again post-pandemic. She began her journey by volunteering in the preschool program.

Nancy Wasserman Giannasi and her therapy dog, Gigi.

“I volunteer with the children in a preschool program called the Optimization Zone,” Giannasi said. “The philosophy of Ranken is beyond the bedside. So, we try to keep these children out of bed by providing development and appropriate play activities.”

Valerie Hoven, director of marketing at Ranken Jordan, describes Giannasi as a quick learner, a great listener and the “full package.”

“Her personality fits so well with our very playful environment,” Hoven said. “She always wants to help. It’s so refreshing. Not everyone came out of this pandemic wanting to help, but then here comes Nancy. She brings the energy and elevates the entire department by being there.”

Hoven said Giannasi always signs up to help with anything she can. One example is the concierge cart, an initiative Giannasi revived. Between decorating the cart and adding her own goodies, she finds opportunities to fill the gaps.

After less than a year of volunteering, Giannasi won the Rookie of the Year award for the volunteer program. Hoven said that it was no contest when choosing Giannasi for the award. Shortly after, she appeared on KSDK’s “Make a Difference” segment. The board of Ranken Jordan nominated her to be recognized. 

“I volunteered my entire life, and I never expected to get recognition for it,” Giannasi said. “I just do it because it’s the right thing to do.”

Giannasi has since added an additional layer to her volunteer work: a therapy dog. In March 2022, she adopted a small chihuahua mix named Gigi after years of rescuing greyhounds. After seeing the impact of therapy dogs at Ranken Jordan, she enrolled Gigi in the Duo Dogs Touch Therapy Program. 

“Her temperament was calm,” she said. “She was kind, she was affectionate. So, I decided to join the program. I was not thinking of therapy when I adopted her. I had never done this before. But once I saw the dogs at Ranken, and I saw her temperament, I thought, you know what? She could make a difference.”

Therapy dog training is no easy feat. Giannasi and Gigi first went through a six-week basic obedience class and temperament testing. Once Gigi was accepted, she joined the 12-week program. All of their efforts paid off, and Giannasi gets to bring Gigi to Ranken. 

“The families and patients have really gotten to know me. They call me Fancy Nancy,” she said. “They talk to Gigi and hug Gigi. And even though they’re going through something very stressful, they can have a moment of joy and just stop for a moment and just breathe. That moment doesn’t mean it’s going take away that stress and everything, but for a moment, it just lets them enjoy and smile. So just knowing we’re hopefully making a difference in some of their lives, that’s my joy.”

More recently, Giannasi started a new endeavor, volunteering with BJC Hospice. Gigi is able to accompany her there, as well. In September, she started volunteering at Evelyn’s House, a BJC hospice in west St. Louis County.

“I’ve had experience with hospice,” Giannasi said. “I’m a widow, and my dear husband passed away almost eight years ago. I knew it’d be challenging, but I knew also that I could do this. And if Gigi could bring just a moment of peace and comfort to a family, and to a loved one, I knew I had to do this. Because a lot of people can’t, it’s very hard.”

Giannasi’s Jewish values played a pivotal role in her upbringing and contributed to her passion for volunteering and helping others. 

“We always had our tzedakah boxes when we were little,” she said. “When we had our allowance or I started babysitting, my dad always said we should decide what kind of charity we want to give to.”

Giannasi said her parents are her inspiration. They took her along to volunteer projects with B’nai Brith, and her father was involved with the Anti-Defamation League. She recalled attending charity drives for the St. Patrick’s Center, putting together gift bags for residents at the Jewish Center for the Aged and wrapping gifts for donations at the mall with her mother.

“I was very fortunate,” she said. “I had phenomenal parents who taught me the importance of volunteering. My dad would always say to me, ‘You know, when you volunteer, you give your time. It’s our responsibility to give back.’ ”

As Giannasi grew up, she took these values with her. She was a candy striper at Jewish Hospital in junior high. In high school, she volunteered at the United Cerebral Palsy Association summer camp. When her kids were in Sunday School at Congregation Shaare Emeth, she volunteered in the gift shop and helped direct traffic during the high holidays. 

Giannasi hopes that she has passed on the values to her children that her parents passed on to her.  

“I hope I inspired my children,” she said. “My children do a lot of different types of volunteering. And they notice what I am doing, and I think they’re impressed. We’ve had some hard times, I’ve had some health issues, I’ve become a widow. But I’m still smiling, still getting up and still thinking I’m going to do whatever I can.”

What’s next? Giannasi is in training in a program called Paws 4 Reading that will allow her to take Gigi into schools.

“Students, maybe with some type of learning disabilities, will be able to sit and read with Gigi,” she said. “They’ve done studies on children reading to dogs. They don’t feel intimidated.”

Giannasi’s impact on so many areas of the community has been profound. Born and raised in St. Louis, she has been giving back to area organizations for more than 50 years. She hopes that her passion can inspire others to get out and make a difference. 

And what’s her advice for those who want to get more involved in volunteering? Find your passion and get started.

“I would tell the person, decide what you want to do,” Giannasi said. “Do you want to work with people? Do you want to make things? Do you want to work in an office? Do you want to bake? Do you want to be a driver for people? 

“There are so many different ways to do it. And there’s no wrong answer.”

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About the Contributor
Bill Motchan, writer/photographer
Bill worked in corporate communications for AT&T for 28 years. He is a former columnist for St. Louis Magazine. Bill has been a contributing writer for the Jewish Light since 2015 and is a three-time winner of the Rockower Award for excellence in Jewish Journalism. He also is a staff writer for the travel magazine Show-Me Missouri. Bill grew up in University City. He now lives in Olivette with his wife and cat, Hobbes. He is an avid golfer and a fan of live music. He has attended the New Orleans Jazzfest 10 times and he has seen Jimmy Buffett in concert more t han 30 times between 1985 and 2023.