Like many professionals, Anne Breakey Hart reached a turning point in her career and needed a change. Breakey Hart decided to take a year off work and volunteered at the Hospital for Sick Children — where she’d been a patient as a child — to give back to the community and chart her future career path.
Shortly thereafter, the longtime social services professional determined she had found her niche, and, roughly 10 years later, is serving as volunteer resources director at the hospital where she has been co-ordinating, managing and promoting all volunteer-related activities for the past three years.
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“In some ways it’s human resources management, but with volunteers, so it’s very different because volunteers want to give to the hospital and make a difference in the lives of kids and their families,” Breakey Hart says.
Given the realities of the health-care system, managing volunteers and encouraging participation is a vitally important element in the functioning of Canadian hospitals.
According to a 2004 report by the Association For Research On Nonprofit Organizations And Voluntary Action, volunteers returned $6.84 in value for every dollar spent on their training and management.
Using those valuable human resources efficiently, therefore, is of paramount importance for any health-care institution.
Becky Anderson, co-ordinator of volunteer resources at Alberta Children’s Hospital in Calgary, feels that proper volunteer screening, orientation and training are crucial in maximizing the benefits of hospital volunteerism.
“It’s making sure that people are happy to be here and that they’ve made a good fit or a good match between the person’s interests and needs and what our needs are,” Anderson says.
“A lot of the challenges come from trying to schedule that many people and people’s lives constantly change. It just takes a lot of flexibility and understanding because we deal with a diverse group of people of all ages and backgrounds.”
Both Anderson and Breakey Hart point out they almost never have to search for prospective volunteers at their respective hospitals, but instead have to manage a regular glut of applicants.
It’s a pleasant predicament for Breakey Hart, who says Sick Kids typically has a wait list of diverse applicants ranging from teenagers to seniors, for the roughly 1,200 volunteer positions working within and outside the hospital each year.
Managing these small volunteer armies has as much to do with handling emotions as it does with juggling schedules and organizing training programs.
Volunteers often become attached to patients, and care has to be taken to help them through difficult times if a patient takes a turn for the worse.
“If there is a situation where the outcome is poor or the child may die, we spend time with the individual or the group of volunteers who are involved with that child and we either have meetings with them or may do some kind of service so they have the opportunity to talk about that child,” Breakey Hart explains.
“Being available is a critical thing.”