Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Volunteers make all the difference

Each morning, six days a week, volunteer Edith Judelson arrives at Jewish Convalescent & Nursing Home in Baltimore and makes her way to the room of a resident with Alzheimer’s disease. Together they say prayers for 15 to 20 minutes. When it’s time for Edith to go to the next room, the woman doesn’t have to say thank you – Edith can tell by the smile on her face.

“The love in their eyes shines through when I help them out,” Edith says. “God gave me a gift of talking to people and making them feel better. Seeing them so happy makes me happy.”

Similar experiences happen every day across LifeBridge Health, where more than 500 men, women and teenagers volunteer thousands of hours each year to make a difference in the lives of patients and residents.

Sara Zemel started volunteering at Sinai Hospital in 1984 because she was looking for something to do after she retired. Sara, now 94, still volunteers once a week in the Volunteer office, where she answers the phone, organizes magazines, prepares the Jewish Times for delivery to patients and receives flower deliveries. She helps the newer volunteers – “kids” she calls them, though many are in their 60s and 70s – learn the ropes.

“I enjoy the company of the other volunteers,” Sara says. “When people in the hospital see your blue jacket, they smile and say hello. It’s nice.”

A clear majority of LifeBridge Health volunteers are of and beyond retirement age. Some dedicated volunteers have been coming to the hospital for 30, 40, even 50 years. Now that the baby boomer generation is leaving the workforce, a large influx of new volunteers is expected.

Beth Duffin, who manages 180 volunteers at Sinai, says the key challenge won’t be recruiting new and younger volunteers but finding tasks for them to do that keep them engaged. There are 77 million baby boomers, and they have many more skills and talents to offer than the previous generation. Nonprofit hospitals need to better develop experiences that give these volunteers a worthwhile experience.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 33.2 percent of all boomers volunteered for formal organizations in 2005, representing the highest rate of volunteering of any age group.

“People want to be busy. But there are a lot of legal and regulatory obstacles to placing them in clinical situations. I’m meeting with the heads of all the departments to identify their needs so we can match volunteers with specific jobs,” Beth says.

For most people, the call to volunteer in a health care setting comes from a desire to participate, even indirectly, in the healing of the sick. Northwest Hospital has a roster of 175 volunteers.

“There are people who lost a family member here and we took good care of them and they want to give back to the hospital,” says Jennifer Terrell, director of Volunteer Services and Business Outreach. “Without the work of our volunteers, this would not be Northwest Hospital. We rely on their dedication, loyalty and generous spirit.”

In addition to providing a valuable service, volunteers also save the hospital money, Jennifer says. Northwest volunteers donated 51,873 hours last year, which translates to nearly $1 million in labor costs.

While LifeBridge Health staff and patients benefit from their willingness to give, volunteers benefit from human connections they make. This is especially true at Levindale and Jewish Convalescent, where volunteers get to know the residents who are there for extended stays.

“Hospital patients come and go. Our volunteers really get to know the residents because they are here all the time,” says Janine-Marie Boulad, volunteer coordinator for Levindale.

The 80 or so volunteers at Jewish Convalescent do a little bit of everything, such as sewing torn clothes, helping with meals and giving residents manicures. Their presence frees up the staff to focus on their job duties.

They come for a variety of reasons but uniformly they’ll tell you they get back more than they give. They long to be here.

April is National Volunteer Month, and LifeBridge Health celebrates its volunteers with an annual luncheon. It’s a chance for volunteers from different facilities to meet and share stories. This year’s event will be held Thursday, April 23, at noon at Beth Tfiloh Congregation in Pikesville. For more information, contact the volunteer office at your facility.

PHOTO: Sinai Volunteers Sheldon Sandler and Minnie Daniels.

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