5 Things to Know About Volunteering at a Hospital

by Susan Evans

Volunteering at a hospital is much more than just Candy Striping — it can be a very fulfilling, educational and rewarding experience.

Jenna Barke, a certified child life specialist and volunteer coordinator at Children’s Hospitals & Clinics of Minnesota, offers these tips of advice for interested volunteers.

I’m interested in volunteering at my local hospital. How do I get started?

Visit the hospital’s website. Most hospitals have a volunteer services office, and that office number will typically be available online. Some hospitals (like Children’s of Minnesota!) even have a volunteer services website with an online application.

At Children’s Hospitals & Clinics of Minnesota, prospective volunteers go through a three-part application process:

  1. Application
  2. Interview
  3. Orientation Session

What will my volunteer application involve?

Most hospital volunteer applications are similar to standard job applications. You will be working with medically fragile individuals in a highly confidential setting, so hospitals want to make sure that you are physically and emotionally capable of handling such a position.

In your application, you will provide information about your educational background, relevant work or volunteer experience (particularly any experiences in health care settings), and any special skills (such as foreign languages or face-painting) that might be an asset to your work with patients.

Most hospital volunteer applications also require at least one personal reference/recommendation letter, a copy of your immunization records (to make sure that all of your shots are up to date!) and a Mantoux (tuberculosis screening) test.

What about the interview and orientation?

At my job at Children’s, we tell applicants to approach their volunteer interview as they would a job interview. Dress professionally, speak clearly (make eye contact!) and articulate your reasons for wanting to spend time in a hospital setting. What makes you someone who could successfully connect with people who are sick or injured?

Children’s also holds a mandatory three-hour orientation session for all new volunteers. During this training time, volunteers learn the “nitty-gritty” details of the hospital, such as infection control policies, patient safety regulations and emergency protocol.

On their first day, new volunteers are paired with an experienced volunteer to “shadow” as they are introduced to the hospital. After that, volunteers are typically allowed to work on the floors on their own.

What hospital areas are volunteers typically assigned to?

Volunteers can work just about anywhere! Listed below is just a sampling of the volunteer areas at Children’s:

  1. Cafeteria/nutrition services
  2. Clerical/administrative areas (copy center, mailroom, etc.)
  3. Gift shop
  4. Hospital lobbies/welcome centers
  5. Infant Care Center (for newborns & premature babies)
  6. Patient care units (inpatient floors)
  7. Surgery waiting rooms
  8. Pharmacy

At Children’s, we try to match volunteers to their interests: for example, volunteers interested in rocking babies will be assigned to the nursery Infant Care Center. If they are interested in working with children with cancer, we will place them on the oncology unit…and so on & so forth!

Ok – I’ve decided to give my time to the hospital…what’s in it for me?

Hospitals (particularly children’s hospitals!) truly could not function without the selfless gifts of volunteers…so many volunteer departments offer volunteering “perks!”

At Children’s-MN, for example, our volunteers receive:

  1. Access to hospital education programs/inservices/workshops
  2. Discounts to community activities (movie passes, sports tickets, etc.)
  3. Free parking
  4. Gift shop discounts
  5. Meal vouchers for the hospital cafeteria
  6. Recommendation letters for academic programs or professional employment…

…and, most importantly, the personal satisfaction of making a difference in hospital patients’ lives!

First-Day Tips

You’ve sent in your application, attended an orientation session and am ready for your first day as a volunteer in the hospital. Here’s what to expect:

You might be a bit overwhelmed at first.

Hospitals are big places, made up of many different departments and units. Don’t worry if you don’t remember where everything in the hospital is. It will take a while!

Lost? Ask a nurse or other hospital staff member for help.

You probably won’t observe invasive medical procedures, surgeries, life-or-death cases, etc.

These types of experiences are typically reserved for medical professionals and/or pre-health students in internship/residency programs.

Similarly, do not expect access to critical care areas such as the emergency departments or intensive care units: while some hospitals do have volunteers in these areas, they are typically in administrative positions (answering phones, copying, filing, etc.), not in patient care roles.

Do expect to see blood, body fluids, etc.

Weak stomach? A patient care area may not be an ideal fit for you.

Volunteering on the inpatient floors? Expect to see scars and hear coughs—it’s a hospital, after all!

Come with an open mind.

On any given day, you may be asked to rock a baby, finger-paint with a four-year-old or simply watch a movie with a teenager who wants company.

If you come with flexibility and a willingness to help anywhere, you will have a very successful volunteer experience.

Thank You…

Jenna Barke, CCLS, is a certified child life specialist & volunteer coordinator at Children’s Hospitals & Clinics of Minnesota. As a volunteer coordinator, she recruits, interviews, and trains volunteers for patient care positions at Children’s…and she firmly believes that hospital volunteering is an incredible, life-changing experience!

Photo Credit: Anastasia Gepp

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