"V" is For Volunteers

GREENBRAE, CA — They greet each hospital visitor with a smile, and provide comfort to patients and families. They dress in holiday-themed costumes to deliver candy and balloons to employees and patients, and they create hand-sewn baby buntings, knit hats and sew blankets as gifts for newborns. They make sure the Emergency Department and patient rooms through the hospital are well-supplied, staff the Gift Shop and BabyNook, and provide comfort and a sympathetic ear to hospital patients and their families. They’re teenagers, nursing students and retirees, housewives and businessmen and women. There are even a few dogs.

The Volunteers at Marin General Hospital come in all shapes and sizes. What they have in common is that they have been providing help, hope, comfort and plenty of smiles for patients and staff alike for 61 years.

Kathy Meyer, Marin General Hospital’s Director of Volunteer Services, says the nearly 250 active volunteers “deliver an extraordinary experience to patients and staff alike. There isn’t a department here that has not benefited from their hard work and caring presence,” she says.

The volunteer program is older than the hospital itself, having been founded in 1950 by a group of women who wanted to support the new hospital being built in Greenbrae. The hospital was completed two years later and community members continued to work as in-service volunteers and fundraisers. Over the years the group evolved to include men, nursing and pre-med students as well as Marin high school youths. Volunteers now serve in nearly every department, providing a myriad of caring touches that improve the lives of both patients and staff members.

Marin General Hospital’s Volunteers also work outside the hospital, in “branches” that raise money for patient care and scholarships for staff and volunteers. Their efforts support such programs as education, chaplaincy, lactation, Marin Community Clinics, cancer, nursing, WIC, physical therapy, “Acts of Kindness” and knitting and sewing for newborns.

The largest group, the 50-year-old “Raccoon” branch, was founded in Tiburon and Belvedere, and has raised more than one million dollars with its annual spring and fall fundraisers. Collectively, all the volunteers have raised nearly $5 million over the years.

Although the time volunteers devoted to the hospital is priceless, a 2008 Independent Sector study estimated that on average volunteers in California are worth $23.29 an hour. Based on that, the nearly 24,600 hours contributed to Marin General Hospital in 2010 alone would be worth over half a million dollars!

“It’s amazing,” Meyer says. “We have at least four volunteers who are over 90 years old. We have some that have been volunteering for decades, and some who have just started. One has given more than 19,000 hours. We just cannot imagine what we would do without them.”

Take the high school volunteer who is Korean and will be going back to Korea to attend college. “Jo-Jo is such a favorite of both patients and staff,” Meyer says. “He has such a lovely manner with everyone—we will miss him so much.”

Another Teen volunteer, Sophia Hooper, has warmed the hearts of dozens of new moms. A sophomore at Redwood High School, she began making baby buntings for the Labor of Love volunteer program as a school community service project in April 2010. Since then, the talented and creative seamstress has made holiday-themed buntings for Easter, the Fourth of July, Halloween, Valentine’s Day, and St. Patrick’s Day, among others. Lucky new mothers get to take their infants home in these free, colorful, hand-sewn pieces—not to mention the treasured hand-knit baby caps lovingly created for the hospital’s newborns by 92-year-old volunteer Betty Shepherd.

Then there’s the partnership with Guide Dogs For the Blind, which makes retired Guide Dogs available to visit with in-hospital patients and outpatients undergoing chemotherapy at the Marin Cancer Institute. “You can’t imagine how much the patients look forward to their visits,” says Meyer. “It’s pure, unconditional love.”

One volunteer who has become a local legend is Jim Paullin. In addition to being president of the Friendship branch of volunteers, and a volunteer in same day surgery, he dresses in costume at Easter, Christmas and Halloween to deliver candy and cheer to patients and staff. During Easter time, he delivers “telegrams” and balloons from one staff member to another for a fee, helping raise funds for the hospital’s “Acts of Kindness” program, which provides crayons and art supplies to children who are hospitalized. Paullin also organizes Friendship’s monthly bake sales—and has attained celebrity status for his sought-after pies.

“Jim is the heart and soul of Marin General Hospital,” says fellow volunteer and Raccoon member Emily Heller. “He inspires all of us.”

Meyer finds the creativity of the hospital’s volunteers remarkable. As an example, she cites a teen volunteer who started her own nonprofit to give fundraising concerts to help children around the world. “She plays the violin with other students and all the money goes to her foundation,” she says. “People are always finding new ways to serve.”

In addition to the Raccoons and Friendship, other Marin General Hospital volunteer branches include the Storks, (comprised of moms who have had their babies at the hospital) and the Founders, the first group of community volunteers for the hospital. All have devised unique traditions for fundraising to support the hospital.

“Volunteers contribute immeasurably to the quality of life of our staff and patients,” says hospital CEO Lee Domanico. “As healthcare grows increasingly complex and technological, it is volunteers like those at Marin General Hospital who keep us grounded and remind us that hospitals are not about technology, but about healing people and comforting families. We can never thank them enough for what they do.”