From the first moment a patient, visitor, or employee steps through the doors at UMC, they’re greeted by a smiling face. Volunteers give directions if needed or supply a mask if someone is visiting one of the in-patient areas of the hospital. These kind helpers are our “Blue Coats,” often senior volunteers contributing their unpaid time to assist in the hospital’s daily operations by demystifying its winding halls and various elevator locations. They politely ask us about our days, and they listen and understand in a hospital where days can sometimes be long and difficult. They empathize with both those they know and complete strangers. At its root, volunteering is about passion, truly Passion in Action, and ordinary people doing extraordinary things to help others.
The pandemic disproportionately affected the senior volunteer population and threatened the safety of those most willing to give their time. UMC made the responsible decision with ICUs full of COVID-19 patients, hospitals having to reject transfers, and contingencies put in place to add beds. The volunteer program was shut down for a short time. Essential personnel pressed on against the odds, doing everything they could to mitigate the pandemic’s devastation. As non-essential services left full-time employees uncertain of their future, many of them filled the former roles of displaced volunteers. Though fewer visitors came through the doors during those times, the spirit of volunteerism lived on, resilient to the challenges, and our UMC family focused on protecting those most vulnerable to the disease.
With the availability of immunizations, the risks associated with COVID-19 lowered, loosening the pandemic’s volunteering restraints and allowing UMC to rebuild its volunteer force. Julie Dominguez, director of Volunteer Services, Guest Services, and Seniors Are Special, says that returning to pre-pandemic norms has been slow. The pandemic has changed the volunteer population. “We actually have a lot more student volunteers than we do community volunteers, so the whole program has kind of changed a little bit. But when you’re dealing with the senior population, they don’t want to get in the hospital—they don’t want to come back.” The concern is reasonable. Working in a place where the sickest people in the region frequently invites a dangerous risk. However, many community volunteers are returning to UMC with easier access to vaccinations and boosters. Julie mentioned that some community volunteers are using their networking power to reach out to former volunteers to try and recruit them back into service. She believes that if some senior volunteers can convey a safer environment, UMC can achieve pre-pandemic levels of volunteering again, despite COVID-19 still being a factor.
“I have a couple of ladies that work the front desk multiple times a week,” Julie says. “We have volunteers from so many different backgrounds. I have a volunteer that was an administrator of a hospital and ladies that were business owners. They do this out of the goodness of their heart.” The front desk was the first volunteer location to be restaffed, and some services run by volunteers, such as the book cart, have only recently returned to service. Julie sees more for the future of volunteering at UMC. Still, she admits that filling the spaces left by community volunteers during the worst part of the pandemic is most essential. Volunteers lighten the load for medical professionals. They allow nurses and doctors to focus more when they know a knowledgeable and effective volunteer can tie up loose ends or take care of smaller tasks.
There is observable power in patients, visitors, and employees knowing that volunteers are committing their time to the hospital because when people freely give their time to something, it’s often an important cause. Volunteers’ smiling faces at the front desks remind us of our broader mission of helping people in some of their most difficult times. How many times have concerned and overwhelmed visitors stepped through the doors of UMC only to leave the front desk smiling confidently? Volunteers are often the beginning and the end of our patient experience. As we slowly return to normalcy, everyone at UMC will feel the effects of the rebounding volunteer population—every day striving to make our day a little better for no reason other than wanting us to be happy.