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The rewards of hospital volunteering

Every hospital has a corps of hard workers. Nurses, doctors, lab technicians, dietitians, physical therapists, occupational therapists, social workers, food service workers, engineers, clerks, and housekeepers are all salaried employees. But let's add one more category: hospital volunteers, who don't receive a paycheck. Not a dime!

I've been a hospital volunteer for nearly 30 years. I've never been able to cash my rewards or put them in the bank, but I've definitely collected them.

I earned most of my volunteer hours in the hospital gift shop. I've also staffed the information desk and served as a floor aide, doing small things that help patients through difficult days. I've delivered flowers and mail, freshened water pitchers, and helped new moms fill out birth certificate forms. I've listened to patients who were lonely or worried. I've done a myriad small jobs that nurses don't have time to do, and I've felt appreciated by patients and staff alike.

I've learned to be a good listener. People come to the hospital gift shop to browse and pass the time while they wait for someone in surgery, for a baby to make an appearance, or for a person having tests. Often they're worried, or so excited that they can't concentrate. Whatever is on their mind pours out before we've barely said hello. Somehow, a volunteer wearing the hospital auxiliary smock and a smile reassures them, and they share both joys and sorrows.

When asked, "Which of these flower arrangements would you choose?," I give an honest opinion, and sometimes I'll suggest other items. Occasionally I offer sympathy to a grieving person. Reaching the happy medium between ignoring someone's plight and being too consoling is not always easy, but volunteers find a comfort zone as they become seasoned workers.

I've gotten to know hospital employees when the aroma of the cookies we bake lures them to the gift shop to pick up snacks and drinks. They like to look around the shop at new merchandise. Busy staff members also come to our shop to do last-minute hunting for a gift. "Best gift shop around," said one. Another told her friend, "I like to shop here. They have great stuff, nice people to help, and the profits go back to the hospital."

Retired people are highly qualified to become hospital volunteers. They have time, and a life's worth of varied experience. Besides that, patients and visitors appear to have confidence in the seniors who help them.

When I talk to fellow seniors about hospital volunteering, some show reluctance. They don't want to be tied down, don't want a weekly commitment. But guess what? A volunteer can take time off as often as he or she likes. There are substitute hospital volunteers to fill in when needed.

Someone asked me once why I gave so much time to the hospital when I received nothing in return.

"That's where you're wrong," I answered. "I receive the satisfaction of knowing I've made someone's day a little easier. I like listening to the stories customers share with me. I enjoy being an ambassador for my hospital, and it's a way I can give back to my community."

I've reaped a great many tax-free rewards.

Call a hospital near you and ask for the director of volunteer services. You'll be glad you did.