Whether patient or visitor, those walking through the doors of Central Peninsula Hospital can count on one thing — a smile from someone seated at a greeting desk.
“When we’re at the desk we’re pretty much the first faces they see when they walk into the doors,” volunteer Suzette Baty said. “And so just greeting them with the ‘hello’ or ‘good morning’ or a smile or any assistance that can help them, it just makes their day a little easier and maybe brighter.”
Baty, who has been donating her time to the hospital for about three years, works the hospital’s greeting desk, fills coffee and tea stations, and does special projects like giving tours to children. She is one of approximately 200 people who volunteer for Central Peninsula Hospital’s Auxiliary — an independent nonprofit dedicated to providing support to the hospital and its residential facilities.
Volunteers with the Auxiliary work as greeters, run the gift shop, help stock coffee and tea stations, provide toys or books to children, visit residents and or keep patients company by playing a game of cards, or simply take the time to have a conversation.
“A lot of them will come to the desk and they’ll stand there for a little while and we’ll just talk,” volunteer Donna Franzmann said.
Franzmann, who began volunteering one day a week at the information desk in April, said she joined Auxiliary ranks because she had the time, and “I just like to make people smile.”
She enjoys the opportunity to meet new people and interact with the community.
“A lot of times the same patients come in — once a week — and you just kind of get to know them, and make them feel comfortable,” she said.
Altogether Auxiliary volunteers donate about 20,000 hours to the hospital. By comparison, a single person working 40 hours a week accumulate approximately 2,000 hours per year.
Eve Thompson, who handles purchasing at the gift shop, has logged more than 10,000 hours in the 15 years she’s worked as a volunteer at the hospital.
Thompson got involved at a time she was struggling with her own health.
“Years ago, I was in a lot of pain from a missed surgery,” she said. “And I would get depressed and I was in pain all the time. And there were times I wouldn’t even leave my house. And then a friend of mine said they need volunteers down at the hospital and there’s (a job) that’s probably perfect of you.”
She first began volunteering at the records room in the hospital. Although it was a small, windowless room, the work kept Thompson busy.
“At least I could get up, get dressed, and leave my house,” she said.
Volunteers working at the gift shop would sometimes consult her when they had problems with the cash register or other merchandising issues, and she eventually transitioned into a position there.
“And I found out when I’m in the gift shop, I don’t have to think about pain,” she said. “I was living again. Even though there was pain there, I was able to punch in and live like a human being.”
Thompson has taken on more and more responsibilities over the years, manning the counter, handling invoices, helping with the shop’s expansion, and eventually began purchasing for the shop. She handpicks items and sells in small quantities — and tries to avoid knick-knacks and throwaway items.
“I never put anything in the gift shop that I myself would not use or buy,” she said.
Thompson said she gets satisfaction out of knowing that visitors to the hospital can find the items they need.
“I like people to come in and when they walk out to feel like they’ve had good service and that they’ve got a good product,” she said. “For me personally, it just helps me.”
Volunteers can provide much-needed emotional support as patients and families struggle with illness.
Kelley Kress and her 9-year-old Shetland sheepdog Kody began doing pet therapy one day a week at Central Peninsula Hospital for several months. The pair has been providing pet therapy for seven years. The two volunteered at a hospital in Anchorage for five years, and have provided support for incarcerated youths and those suffering homelessness.
“Primarily therapy dogs are for comfort care. People in hospitals are in pain — suffering, depressed, homesick, missing their dogs, missing their homes — at the very least we hope to lighten and brighten their day for a few minutes,” Kress said. “Sometimes people feel better just looking at them, kind of like you would at looking at a beautiful bouquet of flowers or your Christmas tree at night all it up.”
Not every dog can be a therapy dog. They need to be “unflappable,” Kress said, able to deal with loud noises, unexpected objects, not pull on the leash and obey commands. Kody fits the bill, Dress said.
“He’s really just a sweet, kind, gentle dog,” Kress said.
Kody has been there for people struggling with a number of challenging situations — patients recovering from trauma, those suffering from dementia, those undergoing treatment for long-term illnesses, and even those who have exhausted their medical options.
Kress remembers one particular incident where a man who asked Kody to be present during a tough conversation with his doctor, who told him they had tried and failed, to find a way to treat his terminal illness.
“And the doctor left and we were quiet for several minutes,” Kress remembers. “And he said, ‘Thank you for being here. I wanted to have this conversation with the doctor, but not with my family present. And I thought I was going to have to do it alone. But instead, you and Kody were here.’”
Kress said the therapy dog program is rewarding not only for patients, but for herself.
“People often thank me and I tell them it’s a privilege to spend time with you and share my dog with you. And I’m happy, happy to do it.”
Formed in 1967 to help the hospital during its construction phase, the hospital’s Auxiliary has grown and changed over the years. Originally volunteers were tasked with things the hospital needed to get up and running — landscaping, plumbing, sewing and painting — and launched fundraising efforts through bazaars and yard sales. By 1972 the Auxiliary expanded its operations to include adult volunteers dubbed “pink ladies” and junior “candy stripers.” The Auxiliary also opened a gift case and began its scholarship program. It wasn’t until 30 years late — in 2003 — that the nonprofit opened a volunteer-run gift shop near the hospital’s back door.
Dave Lowery, who served 26 years in the U.S. Army and 17 years in civil service, was one of four people who helped kick start the Auxiliary volunteer program about 15 years ago.
Lowery had surgery at a trauma center in Seattle — and had been impressed with the care.
“I said I want to give back, and I want to give back to our own hospital,” Lowery said.
At the time, however, the Auxiliary’s volunteer program was lagging — and the organization’s efforts were limited to running a gift shop and providing scholarships, Lowery said.
As he looked for ways to resuscitate the auxiliary, Lowery noticed a lack of morale among hospital staff. He reached out to the hospital’s then-CEO David Gilbreath, in an effort to shore up the volunteer ranks.
“We were looking for additional volunteers, and I said to Mr. Gilbreath, ‘Dave, the morale in this place is terrible.’”
Lowery suggested the Auxiliary create something akin to the Walmart greeter program, with volunteers offering a welcome and smile to patients and staff at the entrance.
After a community outreach effort by the two men and their wives, the Auxiliary had gotten enough volunteers to staff a greeting desk eight hours a day.
“It took almost three weeks for people to start responding back to us,” he said. “It was almost like a foggy day. The morale started to lift and fog started to clear.”
Today, greeters staff desks at the hospital entrances eight hours a day, and don’t just provide a smile, but help anticipate patients’ needs as they enter the hospital — for example, preparing wheelchairs for those who need one, Lowery said.
Lowery, who served on the board of the auxiliary for several years, remains a volunteer to this day — he and his wife are at the information desk every Tuesday morning.
“It makes me feel very good — it makes me feel great,” Lowery said. “I think we have one of the finest medical facilities in the United States. We have a medical facility that people don’t just look forward to coming to, but actually enjoy their time there.”
He encouraged others to join the ranks of volunteers as a way to give back to the community.
“It’s not like you’re giving to the hospital. You’re giving it to the community, you’re servicing the people coming in there.”
Five decades into its existence, however, the Auxiliary is seeing its volunteer ranks dwindle, Jim Childers, volunteer and community services manager for CPH, said.
Childers, who works as the liaison between the hospital and the auxiliary, said the Auxiliary has often relied on retirees, who typically have more time to spare.
“I think that what you’re seeing now, people aren’t retiring because they’re working … to older ages,” Childers said.
The average age of a volunteer is 59, although volunteers as young as 14 and as old as 93 offer their services, he said.
Childers has been trying to get the word out about the volunteer program through outreach programs with schools, churches and community organizations, as well as at public events like the Fourth of July and Progress Days parades.
The Auxiliary needs about 40 volunteers a week, Childers said. Volunteers have to fill out an application, undergo a background check and attend an orientation in order to participate in the program.
Childers encourages those looking for a way to interact with others and contribute to the community to consider volunteering.
“You know you’re helping people — helping others — and that’s the type of person we’re really looking for,” he said.