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URMC / Strong Memorial Hospital / Friends of Strong / The Best of Friends Blog / April 2022 / With New and Familiar Faces, Friends of Strong Volunteer Program is ‘On the Rise’

With New and Familiar Faces, Friends of Strong Volunteer Program is ‘On the Rise’

collage of volunteer and supervisor photosWith many pandemic-related obstacles clearing from view, Friends of Strong Memorial Hospital’s volunteer programs are on the rise and seeing a steady increase in available volunteer opportunities, along with a much-welcomed mix of our greater Rochester neighbors who are eager and willing to serve in a health care setting.

Throughout the past two years, Friends of Strong’s thriving volunteer program overcame pandemic challenges by meeting the needs of each moment, at first completely pausing its operations, and then coming back with renewed purpose, redesigned and stronger than ever.

“By assisting our hard-working staff in enhancing the patient and family experience, the hospital’s volunteers are part of its fabric,” says Friends of Strong Director Sandy Arbasak. “Through it all, we’ve remained engaged with our experienced volunteer base, and then when the time came, we were ready to welcome newcomers from across our area to join our team of amazing volunteers.”

Looking Forward

Looking to silver linings in difficult circumstances, Sandy shares that while the pandemic created many challenges, it also provided the volunteer program with the unique opportunity to completely redesign the recruitment, onboarding, training, and orientation process for volunteers.

“Each one of our volunteers have always completed many of the same onboarding requirements as staff, but until the pandemic we were conducting much of this work manually and in-person,” she says. “The pause of all volunteering and its cautious reopening allowed us to redesign the volunteer onboarding experience with online solutions which have been embraced by both our experienced and our new volunteers, which has really been a blessing.”

“The dedication and spirit of our volunteers hasn’t changed even given the stress and ups and downs of the pandemic,” says Friends of Strong Volunteer Program Manager Karen Keating. “Those who have been with us since before the pandemic have shown incredible willingness to do more and learn new skills, consistently raising their hands to serve in new and different ways from their original volunteer roles.”

Still, many pre-pandemic volunteer roles are not yet ready to be reopened, and for some the future remains very much uncertain. While Friends of Strong hosted more than 1,000 individual volunteers in 2019, the program first reopened in June 2020 with just eight volunteers, and is steadily increasing those numbers each semester. The majority of volunteer roles currently active were only reopened in 2021, after vaccines became available and the pandemic’s impact initially began to ease.

“Today, we are optimistic about the road ahead,” adds Sandy. “In 2021 we were able to host more than 350 volunteers, and we’re growing again—this year we’re already on track to eclipse that with more friendly faces, both familiar and new.”

Indeed, the volunteer program is making great progress in meeting the needs of both reopened volunteer roles, as well as new, emergent volunteer needs as they arise. This past December a small group of volunteers served as Hospitality Advocates in our temporary Alternate Care Unit, providing thoughtful engagement with our adult senior patients awaiting discharge to skilled nursing facilities by playing cards or board games with them, and taking them for walks in their wheelchairs. And, for the first time since 2019, Friends of Strong is again offering a summer HS volunteer program, albeit a very condensed version which is anticipated to grow each year going forward.

"It’s especially good to get back to having these young learners back in our programs, because it’s a great way to introduce them to healthcare careers,” Sandy says. “And eventually, we just know we will get back to our previous volume of volunteer engagement!”

Celebrating Their Service

In celebration of National Volunteer Week 2022 we sat down with several Friends of Strong volunteers and their supervisors to talk about what it means for them to be able to volunteer in health care today.

Volunteer Supervisors are the staff members within a department who are the first to reach out to Friends of Strong and express interest in hosting a volunteer in their area.

“It takes two for a successful volunteer role to take shape and enhance patient care,” Sandy explains. “Both the volunteer, as well as their direct supervisor, are essential to a successful volunteer placement.”

“In many ways, each of our volunteer supervisors serve as a mentor to their volunteers, helping orient them to the day-to-day operations within their area, and also serving as a source of encouragement, confidence and championing for the services they provide for patients and families.” Karen adds.

Wilmot Cancer Center

Hazel Pugh and Sandy Stubinsky pictured at the Wilmot Cancer CenterSandy Stubinsky, of Chili, has volunteered providing a little extra touch of hospitality to Hematology/Oncology patients in the Cancer Center since May of 2016, volunteering more than 850 hours over the course of 218 days. And when the call went out, Sandy was among many volunteers who raised their hands to help in our COVID vaccine clinics.

She first became interested in volunteering while being a caregiver for two friends as they went for appointments and treatments. After meeting volunteers during those visits, she knew it was something she wanted to do upon retiring.

“It truly brings me joy to be able to bring a moment of bright light to the patients, whether it’s a snack, drink, warm blanket, or just a brief conversation with a smile and a good ear to listen,” she says. “It really is important now during the pandemic, as they are having to do their treatments alone. I pray that I can make the time pass a bit faster.”

Wilmot’s Volunteer Coordinator, and Sandy’s Supervisor, Hazel Pugh, says it takes a special kind of person to be a volunteer. “They see a need and act on it. They are people who love to help and see others smile.”

Hazel explains that the patients really do appreciate their volunteers so much that they will ask about them if they don’t see them, whether it’s a permanently placed volunteer or a college student volunteer who is only here during the semester. “That lets me know they have a true and meaningful impact as they serve in their roles,” she adds. “They are faithful and dedicated people.”

Strong West

Jill Paladino and Karen Niles pictured at Strong WestKaren Niles is a lifelong resident of Brockport who first started volunteering at Strong West when it was still Lakeside Hospital and knew she wanted to return to volunteering there as soon as it reopened as Strong West. Since August 2014, she has volunteered more than 1,000 hours over the course of 309 days greeting patients and families arriving for procedures.

An avid reader, television fan, movie goer, and sometime gardener, Karen says that volunteering helps keep her active. She especially enjoys the social interactions she’s able to provide while volunteering. It makes her feel good, she says, and is a reminder of the footsteps she follows.

For many years, Karen’s mom was a volunteer at the west side hospital, then known as Lakeside, and Karen’s Volunteer Supervisor and Administrator at Strong West, Jill Paladino, shares a similar affinity for the Brockport hospital.

Also from Brockport, her grandparents both volunteered for many years at the hospital and Jill still keeps a picture of her grandfather wearing his volunteer vest near her desk.

“It makes me smile,” she says. “When I was offered the job at Strong West, and they mentioned also wanting me to work with Friends of Strong to implement a new volunteer program here, I was overjoyed because it really felt like it was my purpose to be a part of this program and to carry on the work that my grandparents had done at this same facility many years ago.” 

“I’ve been overseeing the Volunteer program at Strong West for 8 years now and it is truly the best part of my job,” she adds. “Our Volunteers are truly the best people I know. They are listeners, messengers, care takers, guides, and our little angels. They quietly make magic happen here, with just a smile or a conversation, and we all adore them!”

Patient Discharge at Strong Memorial Hospital

Joe Ricottone and Art Killings pictured near the Patient Discharge Lounge at Strong Memorial Hospital.Buffalo native and University of Rochester senior studying molecular genetics, Joe Ricottone, began volunteering in Strong’s Patient Discharge during his first year of studies, where he delivers mail and flowers to patients in their rooms, and helps transport them to the discharge lounge on their way home from the hospital.

Between classes, weekly guitar lessons at Eastman, volunteering with the River Campus EMT agency, and working in Strong’s Emergency Department as support staff, Joe is making the best of his time in Rochester—serving more than 325 hours across nearly 100 days at Friends of Strong, alone.

“The encouragement I receive from Friends of Strong’s staff, the conversations with patients, the friendships I’ve made with other volunteers, and the support of Art and Aldwin down in Patient Discharge all keep me going,” he says.

A Rochester native, Patient Discharge Ambassador and Volunteer Supervisor Art Killings echoes Joe’s enthusiasm for engaging with patients as they head home. “Volunteers like Joe learn and practice the value of helping those in need by giving back to their communities,” he says. “They get a chance to preview firsthand what it’s like to work in health care and they give our patients a real sense that people do care and have compassion."

After graduation next month, Joe plans to return to Buffalo and continue research at University of Buffalo, work as an EMT, and apply to medical schools. He will bring with him many inspiring lessons from his time volunteering in our Patient Discharge Lounge.

“You meet people from a multitude of different backgrounds, careers and interests, but in a surprisingly comforting way they often overlap on things even as simple as being thankful for their care or looking forward to going home,” Joe explains. “I get to hear what stood out to them during their time here and what they may be thinking about their recovery. These were things I didn’t know before this position and I think these perspectives will help shape who I aspire to be as a provider.”

“I personally am amazed to see Joe’s dedication and willingness to serve others,” Art says, adding that “Future Dr. Joe” dedication is remarkable. “Even with a tough exam on the horizon, he arrives three days a week, always ready for service!”

“I’ve gotten to interact with a lot of people, often for great parts of someone’s hospital experience,” Joe says. “Those are great moments to witness and be a part of; when they’re getting flowers from friends and family, or when they’re healthy and ready to go home.”

Urgent Volunteer Assignments

LaToya Baldwin and Bonnie Thousand pictured on a patient care unit.Rochester retiree and self-described lifelong learner Bonni Thousand loves to help others and is among the newest Friends of Strong volunteers, joining the program as the Omicron variant began to surge in December 2021.

At first serving in our Pediatrics PICU and the Cardiac Catheterization (Cath) and Electrophysiology (EP) Labs, Bonni soon raised her hand for an additional role as a hospitality advocate in our urgently-created Alternate Care Unit, where she provided thoughtful engagement with our adult senior patients awaiting discharge to skilled nursing facilities by playing cards or board games with them, and taking them for walks in their wheelchairs.

Bonni is vibrant, funny, always positive, and always smiling through her mask,” says LaToya Baldwin, Director of Musculoskeletal and Neuroscience Nursing, who took on the role of volunteer supervisor for the temporary unit. “Her willingness to learn and ability to build relationships with staff and form connections with patients is a gift.”

Bonni is no stranger to public service. She’s been volunteering since her teens; at a nursing home and various other organizations throughout the years. Although retired and volunteering, she’s also pursuing a childhood dream to become a nurse, and is currently taking prerequisite courses with intention to attend nursing school in the fall.

Words cannot explain how it feels to see a lonely patient have a smile on their face when a volunteer like Bonni takes the time to talk and visit with them,” LaToya shares. “The patients really appreciate and look forward to future visits, often asking when they’ll be visiting again."

“It means a lot to be able to help brighten a patient’s or their family’s day, and to help ensure that the care teams have what they need when providing care to their patients,” Bonni explains. “Kindness and volunteering can brighten and make a difference in someone’s day or community. As Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg once said, ‘One lives not just for oneself, but for one’s community.’”

Interested in Volunteering?

Visit our Volunteering webpage for complete details about our volunteer programs and upcoming open recruitment schedules.


Matt Ulakovic | 4/18/2022

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