The Gift of Time
Our diverse league of volunteers — from high schoolers to golden-agers — carry out small tasks that reap big rewards for patients, families, staff members and the volunteers themselves.
Volunteer Phil Fraser softly strummed his guitar as he walked to the Medical Unit. As he turned the corner toward the nurses’ station, a somber 3-year-old pushing an IV pole appeared.
“Sing me a Halloween song,” said the tot.
Racking his brain, Fraser’s mental list of songs came up blank for anything related to Halloween. “I’m sorry, I don’t know one,” he finally had to admit.
Taking a step back, the little girl looked Fraser straight in the eye and with a deadpan expression commanded, “Just sing it.”
With that, he tentatively began to sing. “Happy Halloween, happy Halloween, trick or treat, trick or treat …”
Grinning from ear to ear, the child joined in on the second chorus and, together, they stood in the hallway and sang their new song.
A league apart
Fraser is one of nearly 1,100 volunteers who share their time — and talents —each month in assignments that range from filing specimen slides in the lab to tutoring hospitalized children and teens who need to keep up with their schoolwork.
Across the nation, Seattle Children’s is known for having one of the largest volunteer crews of any children’s hospital.
“My colleagues at other hospitals are clamoring for volunteers. They ask me, ‘How do you do it?’” muses Denise Green, a 28-year Children’s veteran who manages the volunteer office. Working with volunteer coordinator Alison Garrison, Green matches 1,200 new volunteers a year with jobs in 90 different departments.
Over the last seven years, Children’s volunteers logged close to 910,000 hours of time, a staggering figure that represents about $16.5 million in saved labor costs.
“People from all walks of life come through our doors to volunteer for a variety of reasons,” explains Green. “What keeps them coming back are the powerful connections they make with patients, families, staff members and each other.”
Part of Children’s family
From 6 a.m. to midnight, seven days a week, volunteers in their trademark blue smocks can be found at the hospital. None is more recognizable — or dedicated— than Rusty Smith, 28.
Every Tuesday afternoon, Smith and his parents, Mike and Sandi, travel one hour by water taxi from their home in the San Juan Islands and stay the night in Anacortes. In the morning, they get up early and head to Seattle so Smith won’t be late for his volunteer job: a 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. delivery gig.
Smith has severe cerebral palsy and received treatment at Children’s until he turned 21. As a Children’s volunteer, he maneuvers his electric wheelchair to every corner of the hospital, delivering toys to the playroom, parcels to the mail room, and gifts, flowers and balloons to patient rooms.
Through voice software on his laptop computer he explains why he’s kept his campus courier position for the last eight years. “I like the people I meet and I feel good doing this job. I feel like I belong.”
On Tuesday mornings when Claudia Cady brings out Millie’s “work clothes,” the 24-pound Cavalier King Charles spaniel puts her head through her own harness and wags with excitement as Claudia buckles the green vest that identifies her as a certified Pet Partner.
Being able to bring Millie to the hospital is a dream come true for Cady, a retired bank vice president. After spending two years working with a professional animal-assisted therapist at Children’s and putting Millie through the rigors of advanced dog training, she says the smiles on the faces of the children they visit make all the preparation worth it.
But Millie isn’t just for the kids. “Families and staff members love to see her, too,” says Cady. “99% of the people at the hospital who see my little black-and-tan dog give us a big smile.”
The healing is mutual
When Green and Garrison talk about their volunteers, they say that many people not only give of their time, they give of their hearts. This is especially true of Fraser, the retired engineer who sings and plays guitar for children on the inpatient units every Wednesday morning.
After Children’s surgeons removed a golf ball–sized tumor from the wall of his oldest son’s heart in the early 1970s, Fraser returned the favor for a few years by crooning to hospitalized babies and toddlers after work. In 2006, Fraser came back to his volunteer stomping grounds to delight more children with his soothing voice and whimsical songs — many of which he writes about places at the hospital.
“My goal is to help the children relax,” reflects Fraser. “Music is the tool that I use to release them from the invisible restraints of the hospital bed. It’s also very healing for me.”
Even though his son is almost 40, Fraser says he’ll never forget what it was like to be a parent with a seriously ill child — a feeling that continues to inspire him. “There’s always one more song that I need to write and one more child I wish I could see.”
“We work for eight hours and sleep for eight hours. What do you choose to do with that third eight? I choose to become involved.”