By: Nichole Williams, MSW Volunteer Coordinator
Volunteer Brenda and her therapy dog Lilly
In honor of Volunteer Appreciation Week 2016, I want to personally say thank you to all of our volunteers for their commitment, their time, and the incredible service. Hospice would not be hospice without all of the amazing volunteers!!!
I have been working at Front Range Hospice since the beginning of the year, and I have been given the honor of working with our incredible volunteers through my role as the Volunteer Coordinator. I have worked in hospice for 12 years, and know the value of the volunteer services. It is such a pleasure to interact with each of them, to learn about their lives, and walk with them side by side as they provide incredible care to the patients and families that we serve here at Front Range Hospice. I want to say thank you to ALL of our volunteers, for their kindness, their compassion, their time, and their ability to share with others in their end of life journey.
I asked two of our volunteers to share a little about what it is like to “be a hospice volunteer”:
I have been a volunteer of one sort or another for most of my adult life. I started as a pink lady at 18 (I was always taken for a candy striper because I looked so young), and have volunteered for a lot since then. I volunteered for Attention Homes here in Boulder, as a respite house-parent, a mental health hot line called First Call for Help and one year as a Court-appointed Special Advocate (CASA). When my kids were little, I started two different support organizations for parents (Informed Parenthood – hosted speakers on issues relating to young children, and a Boulder chapter of a national organization supporting parents of gifted children.) I was active in those for several years.
When my dogs started bringing in what I call Goat-heads on their feet, I was challenged to discover the offending plant responsible, which expanded into an interest in identifying native plants. I took and then taught courses in the Native Plant Master program through the CSU Extension office. I volunteered through the Boulder Parks and Open Space department surveying rare plants in Boulder, and also with the Boulder County Parks and Open Space department in evaluation of revegetation projects.
When I was asked to serve as a Lay Eucharistic Minister for my church, I felt completely unworthy for that position, but I discovered how valuable and appreciated a few minutes of my time can be. My more recent volunteer positions are 7 years at the Longmont Humane society, walking dogs, working with them on behavior issues, and working as a receptionist at their clinic. I worked for one year at WOLF, which is a wolf and wolf-dog sanctuary west of Fort Collins. That was really cool.
In regards to why I volunteer as a hospice volunteer, I think that the short answer is because I can, and I get to take my dog. “Because I can” might seem confusing, but it’s like when I volunteered at the animal shelter. So many people would say, “Oh, I could never do that, seeing all those poor dogs. It’s so sad.” I’d tell them “You should try it, you might be surprised”. Hospice is like that. A lot of people think that they couldn’t do it, that it would be too emotional. So, I took my own advice with hospice, and tried it. When you realize what a few minutes of your time can mean to someone, how could you say no?
I volunteered at another hospice organization a few years ago, doing Pet Therapy with my white German shepherd, Maggie. But when she died suddenly of cancer, I didn’t think that my other dog, Lilly, was ready. Now I regret holding her back for so long. After getting her certification, a request came in from Front Range Hospice, and Lilly has been a real hit.
It’s always rewarding to be greeted with a big smile, and to know that the client is saying nice things about us to other people. But the most rewarding, I think, was the memorial service. I had to go through a memorial service in the atrium of a facility, to get to the stairway to visit a client upstairs. When I got to the stair landing, a woman stopped me, petted Lilly said “It’s OK. My mother really liked dogs.” I went on up to my visit, and when I came back, the woman stopped me again and asked if I would take Lilly to say hello to her daughter, on the opposite side of the atrium. As we moved slowly and quietly around the back of the group, so as not to be disruptive, almost every person there reached out to pet Lilly as we passed and smiled a deep, heartfelt smile. It was powerful, communal, experience, and a reminder that we touch not only the patient and their families, but sometimes the larger community as well.
When I talk to someone about my volunteering through Front Range Hospice with my dog Lilly, it usually starts with a complement to Lilly, and a question on what breed she is. (White German Shepherd and husky). When I tell them that she’s a therapy dog and we see hospice patients, they sometimes say that they’ve thought of doing pet therapy work with their own dog. I explain to them that becoming certified as a therapy dog is really not as hard as they might think and I tell them how to go about it. Some organizations, like hospitals, have a rigorous training and testing program. For others though, the dog’s basic temperament is the most important. There are so many things you can do, from helping CU students to de-stress during finals week, to helping young children learn to read, by reading to your dog, and of course, hospice.
My father was diagnosed with terminal cancer in May 2004. He immediately went into hospice care at home. He was only expected to live for approximately 6 weeks. He lived for 5 additional months. Partly because of his attitude and strong nature, and also because of the hospice care he received at home. Hospice care enabled him to visit with family and friends, to continue many of the activities he enjoyed (golfing, wood work, etc.) and to have closure to his life. They (hospice staff) were there for both of my parents during this time and they never felt alone in the entire process.
The most rewarding experience in hospice volunteering is meeting some incredible people who I otherwise would have never known, and being able to share their life experiences and thoughts.
Hospice volunteering is a unique experience. It can be hard because you know that someone is approaching their end of life. You know that they will pass and watching it can be hard. It can be wonderful because you can make someone laugh during a difficult time, give them comfort, let them know they (and/or their family )are not alone, and just sit there and be a presence. You learn that there are some unique wonderful people in the world, and you got to meet one of them and have them be a part of your life.
When someone knows that I do volunteer hospice work (I also volunteer at Longmont Humane Society), they usually comment on how they would never be able to something like hospice as it would be so hard to be around someone dying. It is hard at times. It is also something that I know we will all experience. If I can make a positive effect for an individual or their family, then my life is enriched beyond understanding and I have gained more than anything I could have possibly provided to them.
Hospice volunteering takes a big heart, time, and a willingness to walk with patients and their families as they are dying. It takes a person who is able to “be” with a person in their end of life process. Walking this path with people can mean bearing witness to heartache, suffering, pain, grief and loss, and having to say goodbye. The volunteers who provide care to the patients of Front Range Hospice are a tremendous gift to not only the patients and families, but also to the rest of the hospice team. Our patients often have a deep connection with their volunteer, they truly are part of the team!
If you would like more information about Front Range Hospice and how to get involved in the volunteer program call 303-957-3101 or 970-776-8080 or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.