Here's what volunteering at a hospital is really like. And why you should do it.

Have you ever considered volunteering at a hospital? It's an important job that's often overlooked.

Photo by Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade via WikiCommons.

When you think about the work done at hospitals and other care facilities, visions of doctors and nurses are probably first to come to mind. While these healthcare professionals do some of the most important work on the planet (and that's no overstatement), volunteers are an integral part of the hospital's ecosystem as well.


Volunteers greet visitors, run groups, provide support to patients, wash and change linens, clean rooms, restock supplies and help ensure that the hospital is running cleanly and smoothly so that those providing medical care can focus on the patient's physical health and continued well-being.

In short, volunteers are vital. They form real and lasting connections with patients, and help them get better in a clean, comforting environment.

We talked to three people to get their take on what it's like to work in care facilities, the challenges they've faced, and what the work they did taught them about themselves (and it taught them a lot). Read on to find out more.

Alia read to kids at her local hospital. It made her realize the difference a bedtime story could make.

Photo by Juhan Sonin via Flickr.

When she gave birth at 17, Alia was grateful that her child was strong and healthy. At the same time, she realized that other new parents weren't living that same experience.

"The idea that other families didn't have that really pained me," she writes in an email. I wanted to help them."

Alia would put her son to bed and then, when he was asleep and safely being looked after, drive to Fresno Children's Hospital, where she'd read bedtime stories to children who didn't have company and couldn't sleep at night. She expected the work to make her emotional, but was not at all prepared for the impact it ended up having on her.

"I would cry in my car after all of my shifts," she explains. "I wasn't equipped for the emotional weight of children with poor health. I have the utmost respect for people who can bear that weight comfortably."

It also taught her just how needed volunteers are. They're the people who fill in the gaps in care, fostering close connections with patients who are going through some of the hardest days and nights of their lives.

"I wish people knew how much need there is," she writes. "Walking those empty halls at night, you look into rooms and see people who are scared, lonely, and bored. A few more people in the hall making their way to connect with patients is a huge difference."

"I found the experience rewarding in a lot of capacities. The largest is probably the degree to which it taught me about myself. I valued my son and his health so much. I learned about my emotional limits. And I felt good because I was helping others."

Author Chuck Miceli helped people living in a long-term care facilities express themselves.

Photo by Elien Dumon on Unsplash

He co-coordinated a weekly Poetry group for patients and residents at the Southington Care Center, a rehabilitation and health care facility in Southington Connecticut.

In the group, the residents of the center were encouraged to write and share their own poetry, bring in poems that they enjoyed by their favorite authors, or just sit and listen to the work written by people who also lived there. For many, it was a watershed moment in their recovery. It provided a sense of purpose for one resident in particular — allowing her to see that she was still valued and needed.

"A friend of mine approached me to say that a mutual friend from our church, Joan LaRose, was at the facility," Chuck writes. "I hadn't seen her in years. Now, she was suffering from advanced Parkinson's disease and could not lift her head from her chest, but she still expended the time and effort to write poetry."

"I visited Joan and asked to see her poems. Rather than being bitter or remorseful, they were exceptionally uplifting and beautiful. That motivated me to see if others at the facility might also want to get involved, which prompted the creation of the poetry group."

The group eventually grew and Joan's poems were collected and published in a book that keeps her memory alive. The poetry group is something Chuck reflects on as one of the most positive experiences of his life. It's a reminder of the indomitableness of the human spirit.

"Walking into a nursing or health care facilities can be an intimidating and depressing experience because it is so easy to assume the hopelessness of people's situations," he explains. "It is easy to see what is missing: the physicality, the youthfulness, the mobility, the energy. It is what we don't see, however, that is most important: the potential, the desire to be useful, the lifetime of experience and wisdom, the yearning to be involved."

"Tapping into what's possible instead of being debilitated by what's missing is at once the greatest challenge and the greatest reward."

Jeaninne Escallier Kato, a teacher and writer, volunteered at hospitals during two points in her life. It taught her to think on her feet and let go of her ego.

Photo by Lenny DiFranza via Flickr.

"I have volunteered in hospitals twice in my life," notes Jeaninne. "My volunteer duties included: distributing food and books, feeding patients, teaching and reading to children, managing the play room and holding babies."

"It is all about patient care and compassion. When I was given the task to teach a bedridden child with extreme mental disabilities, I didn't feel like I could handle my emotions. Over time, I let my compassionate nature take over and began to feel the bonds of a strong relationship. That child was so appreciative of my time and attention once a week for three hours, I couldn't wait to get my Saturday hug."

"There's nothing like the feeling of making others comfortable and giving relief. It's another form of love. My advice to those who are considering this line of work is you have to take your ego out of everything because you will be asked to do some very disagreeable tasks."

"Don't do it for you, do it for others. You will soon learn your merit, which resides in the care and love you give freely, because it always comes back two-fold."

Caring for others in need is something we should all make more of an effort to focus on.

Providing comfort to those going through medical difficulties is one of the best ways to help make the world, a brighter, safer, happier place.

So, if you've been thinking of volunteering at a hospital, but had reservation, now might be the time to reconsider. You have no idea how much your efforts will mean to the patients you meet.

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Brian Olesen never imagined he would end up homeless.

The former U.S. Air Force medic had led a full and active life, complete with a long career in the medical field, a 20-year marriage, and a love of anything aquatic. But after hip surgery and chronic back pain left him disabled in 2013, he lost his ability to work. Due to changes in eligibility requirements, he couldn't qualify for federal veteran housing programs. His back issues were difficult to prove medically, so he didn't qualify for disability. Though he'd worked his whole life, having no income for five years took its toll. He got evicted from a couple of apartments and found himself living on the streets.

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Brian Olesen in his kitchen at Karis VillageCapital One

Karis Village isn't just a housing development; it's a home and a community. Half of the units are set aside for veterans who have experienced homelessness, like Olesen. The other half are largely occupied by single-parent families.

"To me, this building was just a gift," says Olesen. "All of the different parties that got together to put this building together… making half the building available to veterans. We've got no place to go."

Addressing veteran homelessness was one of the goals of Karis Village, which was built through a partnership that included Carrfour Supportive Housing — a mission-driven, not-for-profit affordable housing organization in southern Florida — and Capital One's Community Finance team. More than just an affordable place to live, the community has full-time staff on hand to help coordinate services—from addiction recovery programs to transportation options to job search and placement. Also included are peer counselors who provide emotional and psychological support for residents.

Karis Village, an affordable housing community in Miami, Florida.Capital One

Carrfour President and CEO Stephanie Berman says the core function of the services team on site is to build a supportive community.

"Often when you think of folks leaving homelessness and coming into housing, you think of shelters or some kind of traditional housing," she says. "You don't really think about a community, and that's really what we build and what we operate. What we're really striving to create is community. We find that our families thrive when you create a sense of community."

The intention to create a supportive community at Karis Village was a priority from the get go. Fabian Ramirez, a Capital Officer on Capital One's Community Finance team, says the bank did a listening tour in southern Florida to explore community development and affordable housing options in the area and to hear what was most needed. After deciding to partner with Carrfour, the bank provided not only an $8 million construction loan and a $25 million low income housing tax credit (LIHTC) investment to help build Karis Village, but it also kicked in a $250,000 social purpose grant to help fund the social support services that would be put in place for residents.

"It's not just all about providing the brick and mortar," says Ramirez. "It's about being able to contribute to the sustainability of the development and of the lives of the people who move into the building."


Capital One

Olesen says he and his fellow residents benefit greatly from the network of support services offered in the building. He says a counselor comes to meet with him once a month, sometimes right in his apartment. He also gets help maintaining a connection with the Veteran Affairs office. Other services include social workers and counselors for drug addiction and alcoholism.

Olesen loves being around other veterans, and he says hearing the sound of children playing keeps the community lively. He says anywhere else he could afford to live on disability wouldn't be nearly as nice and would likely involve shared kitchens and bathrooms and neighborhoods you wouldn't want to go out in at night.

If it weren't for Karis Village, Olesen says he doesn't know where he would be today: "I had nowhere to go and this is a safe, beautiful place to spend my retirement."

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Karis Village and another development for veterans built the same year enabled the neighborhood of Goulds to meet the requirements set forth by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to declare an end to veteran homelessness in the area.

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