Nancy Schumacher’s hands are literally “helping hands” in the NICU at Capital Health at Mercer (see story "Holding On To The Most Fragile Gifts of Life"), there are more ways than you can imagine to volunteer in a non-medical capacity at a hospital. Many of them are a far cry from the cookie-cutter candy striper you remember from high school. Some hospitals, like Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in Hamilton, will even train you to play the hand-held harp or do the hands-on energy work called reiki. We asked the directors of volunteers at three hospitals how to get involved, even on a busy working professional’s schedule — and where they need help the most.
‘I have requests for volunteers from departments all the time,” says Nancy Schlitter, director of volunteer services at Capital Health, which has about 145 active volunteers, most of whom come once or twice a week for a three or four-hour shift.
Cathy Gillespie, a Lawrenceville resident who is an underwriter for American Collectors Insurance in Marlton, volunteers in the gift shop on Saturdays. “Right now I’m desperate for volunteers in the gift shop,” says Schlitter. “You get to interact with patients and staff. Sometimes the staff comes down to the gift shop to buy a candy bar or newspaper or spend 10 minutes floating around, just to catch their breath or have a break from whatever is going on on the floor. Their jobs are difficult and stressful. I look for someone who will say hi, how are you, talk to the people; their primary job is to just be there and be nice.”
John Twamley, a Princeton Junction resident who is a VP of sales for Cellucap Manufacturing Company in Philadelphia, volunteers on evenings and weekends as a pastoral care volunteer, visiting patients to offer support. Karen March, a full-time groundskeeper at Rider University, volunteers as a pet therapist, and brings her mastiff, Quincy, into the hospital on Tuesday evenings to visit with patients.
Adriana Robinson, a Lawrenceville resident who works at Covance in Carnegie Center, is a March of Dimes NICU parent support volunteer who volunteers Thursday evenings. Her son, Isaiah, was born in the NICU at 26 weeks and weighed just over one pound, staying in the NICU for over three months. Robinson was one of the first to become involved in the March of Dimes program, which trains volunteers to support families one-on-one in the NICU. She also visits and supports moms on bed rest. “Adriana is one of the most dedicated volunteers we have in the NICU for direct support to parents,” says Schlitter.
Schlitter says there is a need for pediatric readers. The hospital recently received a large donation of children’s books, which has been organized into a rolling library. Pediatric readers read a book to a child and then give the book to the child. “For some of our pediatric patients,” says Schlitter, “this can be an introduction to reading; for some, it is the first book they have owned.”
Volunteers can work at the information desk. Or they can be an escort, taking discharged patients to the front of the hospital. In a program started by a volunteer, breastfeeding mentors — women who have been successful feeding a premature baby — work as mentors to other women who have a NICU baby and may need help.
The guest relations department has a new program in which volunteers take a tea cart, stocked with tea, cookies, and goodies, and visit patients. “A patient isn’t just getting a cup of tea,” says Schlitter, “they’re having a friendly visitor. A lot of people don’t have visitors. That volunteer may be the only person that patient sees that day.”
Schlitter explains that all volunteers fill out an application, provide two references, then have a one-on-one interview with her. “I spend a good half hour or 45 minutes to get a good feel for them, then I decide where they might be placed.” After the interview, a criminal background check and health screening are done, followed by an interview in the department the person will be working in, then a hospital orientation and training session by the specific department.
There are volunteer opportunities at all of Capital Health’s campuses, including Capital Health Regional Medical Center, on Brunswick Avenue in Trenton; Capital Health at Mercer, on Bellevue Avenue in Trenton; Capital Health in Hamilton, which houses medical offices, a same-day surgery center, the sleep center, outpatient diagnostics, and some physician practices.
Schlitter says she gets plenty of applications from recently laid-off professionals too. “A lot of people who are out of work are volunteering right now to look at other (professional) options,” says Schlitter. “I had a volunteer who had gone back to school to become a medical office assistant. She was placed as a volunteer at one of our physician’s offices, and it’s a win-win; she gets to put that on her resume.”
Schlitter, who has been in her position for 11 years and says she loves her job, emphasizes there is no minimum number of hours for volunteering. “We’re always looking for volunteers. I think they do so much to improve patient satisfaction, it’s like neighbors helping neighbors.”
To get started: E-mail Nancy Schlitter at email@example.com or call 609-394-4023.
Pamela Tritz-Okia, manager of volunteer services at the University Medical Center at Princeton, says the hospital has over 2,100 volunteers in more than 100 departments. Many of the volunteers do things you wouldn’t typically think of. “For example, we have a volunteer working in the nutrition department who just goes around and encourages patients to pick out more than just jello on the menu; they get specific training to help patients fill out a complete menu.”
By day Kumar Nanavati is the director of worldwide package technology for Bristol-Myers Squibb but when he’s not in Italy or Egypt or somewhere else overseas, he’s in the hospital’s emergency room on Tuesday evenings from 6 to 9 p.m. Nanavati had to go through stringent training, says Tritz-Okia. He assists with setting up the curtained divisions and helps with family needs such as keeping a child who is not allowed in the patient area occupied with puzzles or games, or acting as a liaison with family members in the waiting area. He brings blankets and pillows, and refreshments, if approved, to patients; maintains non-clinical supplies; and runs errands and deliveries such as taking a tissue sample with a timed life to the lab, something that requires courier training.
Kristen Tedesco, a senior environmental engineer for the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, also volunteers on Tuesdays from 6 to 9 p.m. in the Acute Rehab and Oncology unit. She assists with office support, answering phones and providing info packets for patients; straightens out bedside tables; reads magazines to patients; and checks supplies like games, cards, puzzle books, and headsets in the “oasis” room or goes to the supply room for the medical staff.
Volunteers who serve as couriers make constant runs throughout the organization, says Tritz-Okia, doing pickups and deliveries. They wear a pager for STAT or critical calls; if a department has a timed sample, for example, they can page a courier, who will drop what they’re doing and take the sample to the lab. “These people are physically inclined,” says Tritz-Okia. “We’re their no-pay gym. It takes a very special person to do (this job).” Couriers are also trained to serve as escorts, assisting people in finding their way around the hospital, escorting family members to patients or bringing packages from family members to patients who are too highly medicated to have visitors.
Lydia Osborne, the assistant to the director of the Office of the Alumni Association at Princeton University, volunteers on Saturday evenings at the information desk.
Tritz-Okia says they have volunteers who are musicians — violinists, flutists, and harpists — and play on a designated floor or department, the coffee shop or admissions waiting room or lunchroom. Others man the book cart. “On a daily basis we receive donations of newspapers, magazines, and novels. The book cart people keep this massive donation organized and take the book cart up to patients’ rooms. We also have readers who go in and offer to read a book or a newspaper to patients. They can also assist a patient who needs a letter written, or, at this time of year, holiday cards.”
Tritz-Okia says the volunteer experience can be life-changing. She tells of one book cart volunteer who came to her, ecstatic — he had offered a patient a glass of water and discovered the patient spoke the same Hindi dialect he did. “The volunteer went back later in the evening, when he was done with his duties, and he came back the next day. They formed a friendship based on that. This ignited a flame in the volunteer, and now he is interested in pursuing medical translation.”
She says they also have a lot of volunteers who have been laid off. “They’re tired of not being productive. They want to give something back. I have one lady who started volunteering in the lab, answering phones and filing. Because of that experience she is now in school learning to be a lab technician. If she had never decided to come here to volunteer she never would have thought of that option.”
Vickie Kaufman, who works part-time in the hospital gift shop as a paid employee, loves to knit and is now, as a volunteer, teaching patients in the eating disorders unit to knit. They can either keep their item, such as a hat or scarf, or give it to the oncology department, or knit a baby cap for the maternity department.
“Equally important is that I find with many of our working volunteers that they come here for the connections,” says Tritz-Okia. “They form a social group. We have a group who meets every Tuesday for coffee. They have formed friendships. Two or three groups go out to the movies once a month,” The application process includes filling out an application with references, an interview, orientation session, department-specific training, and like all hospital employees, training in HIPAA laws and being sensitive to ethnic diversity. “We have volunteers from high school age to age 94,” says Tritz-Okia, who has worked at the hospital for four years. “In the interview, we talk about their hobbies and interests to make a perfect match between what they’re looking for and what the hospital’s needs are. We have volunteers who have been with us for years.”
To get started: Visit www.princetonhcs.org/volunteers.
Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital
Kathy Gabel, volunteer manager at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital at Hamilton, says when she interviews prospective volunteers, “I watch their face and look for the light: their face changes, and then I say, yes, that’s what we want. My job is to see what lights their fire. I have to remember their purpose. A lot of times people who want to volunteer have gone through major changes — maybe they just moved to the area or had a death of a spouse. For a lot of people starting to volunteer is a new beginning for them or it’s in relationship to an ending, which is, of course, a new beginning.
“It’s important to make the best match possible. I try to figure out what’s driving their decision to volunteer. You want to bring the right person to the task so then they will enjoy it, and the organization will get what they want. The person will stay longer, and that will make everybody happy.”
Kathy Puca, a Hamilton resident and bookkeeper at the law firm of Stark & Stark, is also trained at the master level in Reiki therapy, a non-invasive, simple use of touch to help balance the energy systems of the body. It promotes a state of relaxation, assists in pain reduction, and enhances the healing process. A volunteer for five years at RWJ, Puca teaches Reiki workshops to other volunteers who want to become certified, and she does Reiki with patients as well.
Rachel Holland, a Hamilton resident who owns her own company, Rachel Holland Special Events and Consulting, is a member-volunteer of the RWJ Hamilton Young Professionals Group. Members participate in the governing structure of the hospital and serve as an extension of the hospital’s foundation to coordinate fundraising projects and initiatives.
Louis Monticchio, a Hamilton resident who is an accountant and director of global financial systems for Ernst & Young in Secaucus, volunteers as part of the hospital’s clinical pastoral education (CPE) program. In addition to theological students and professionals like priests, pastors, and rabbis, CPE volunteers include laypersons of all faiths who are trained to work with people in crisis.
Susan Alston, a Ewing resident who is contracted with the temp agency Kelly Services and is currently working at Janssen Pharmaceuticals in Titusville, volunteers as a pet therapist, bringing her dog to visit patients in the hospital and at special events such as the hospital’s Cancer Survivor Day.
Mary Cupo-Cruz, an attorney with her own practice in Lambertville, has gone through the RWJ Academy training to become a bedside harpist. She plays a hand-held folk harp in common areas, patient rooms, corridors, outpatient service areas, and the Cancer Institute of New Jersey Hamilton, adjacent to the hospital.
Volunteer manager Gabel, who has been at the hospital nine years and worked in a similar capacity for a rehab hospital before that, makes a good point when she says hospital volunteering isn’t for everyone. The application process is involved and multi-faceted, involving everything from a criminal background check to TB testing. Gabel likens her job to someone in HR. “Sometimes when people call they don’t expect this process and don’t expect to be told no. It is very specific, what we do.
“People have said, ‘I used to run a company, don’t tell me to fold papers.’ I may end up having to say I don’t have anything. But when someone wants to offer their time, we shouldn’t make it too difficult for them. If I find it’s not a match, my responsibility is to have them leave with possibilities. I might say, what you want to do doesn’t fit here, but here’s a list of organizations that might work. I often refer people to www.volunteerconnectnj.org, a clearinghouse of volunteer opportunities.”
But those are more the exception than the rule, says Gabel. The most successful volunteers, she points out, are “the ones we think are going to be happy and spread that happiness around.”
To get started: Call Kathy Gabel at 609-631-6981.