Charles Dickens, in “Bleak House,” coined a piercingly apt phrase for his time and ours: “telescopic philanthropy.” In our time, it means doing good by dashing off a check or slapping on a bumper sticker (see “Free Tibet”). Others, however, are driven by the need to do more.
Few places in Seattle test a person’s commitment to emotional risk in the name of serving others than the volunteer program at Seattle Children’s Hospital, which houses 254 patient beds.
For those volunteers, the rewards run rich and deep. Spending three hours a week with sick children — some are terminal — not only gives worn parents a respite but brings volunteers from all walks of life together to share a difficult but rewarding experience rarely available in the busy world outside the hospital grounds.
The 24-acre, complex at 4800 Sand Point Way N.E. is such a Seattle landmark — it’s easy to forget, or not think hard about, what goes on inside.
The hospital’s still, calm center is its small chapel, a small room filled with natural light featuring stained-glass art, books of inspiration and solace and rows of chairs facing each other. On every third or so chair sits a box of tissue
Near the windows is the chapel’s centerpiece: a big, blank book, big as a medieval manuscript, where people write messages.
“I’m sorry. Please forgive me. Thank you. I love you,” reads one. “Thank you for another day,” reads another. “Each day is more blessed than the last. (Name withheld) had a great day. Bless all those who are in need.”
And this: “I love you, bro. Don’t leave me. Not now.”
Outside, above the chapel door in English and Spanish, is this message: “Peace to all who enter here.”
Trading cruise berths
for sick beds
The top reasons for hospital admission include asthma, chemotherapy, seizures and pneumonia. Volunteers, who fill three-hour slots once a week, play a quiet but vital role in this universe
Those hours can be stressful, emotionally draining and heartbreaking — 70 percent drop out of the program within the first year for a variety of reasons, but the difficulty of interacting with seriously ill children is one.
Alison Garrison, 50, manager of Seattle Children’s volunteer services and its 725 volunteers, once worked for Princess Cruises. Garrison grew up in Bothell and remembers how, as a little girl, she accompanied her father to the hospital when he brought bunnies to show at Easter.
“You could do that then,” she said, laughing.
Garrison started out as a volunteer and worked her way up to run the program, exchanging her focus from luxury, shipboard berths to the world of children’s sick beds. She characterizes the initial meeting with a potential volunteer as “probably one of the most meaningful things to my job.”
Garrison said a variety of motivations bring potential volunteers to the program: Some are former patients, and some are parents of former patients. Others have lost a child. There are those with no previous ties to the hospital. Almost 30 percent of the volunteers are University of Washington, mostly pre-med, students.
Volunteers have options: Some prefer no patient contact. The majority does, however, Garrison said. “Most volunteers we interview are usually suited for the position they apply for,” she added.
Three hours of training, with 12 hours of follow-up, are part of the regimen. Each week, for their three-hour sessions, volunteers are paired up with a different child.
The hospital’s game rooms — one for younger kids, and one for teens — are filled with age-appropriate toys and games, including computers.
Garrison said she hears all kinds of motivations from those who stay committed to the program: “I got to hold the cutest baby,” or, “I was too tired or not in a good mood, but when I came here….”
“It puts things in perspective when you get that one little, special smile from a child who’s had a difficult time,” Garrison said. “Or maybe you’ve allowed a parent to take an hour’s nap.”
Phil Smart Jr., 93, the former Mercedes-Benz dealer, is the well-known poster boy for the volunteer program. In 2001, the World War II veteran self-published “Angels Among Us,” a memoir of his four-plus decades of volunteer work at Children’s. A sequel, “The Real Angels Among Us” came out in 2004. Book sale profits were directed to the hospital’s uncompensated-medical-care fund.
The books are written in a style — chin-up, discerning and a universe away from hip cynicism — that very quickly wins the reader over.
Here is Smart on one patient: “I believe her gift was the way she taught me how to listen. Young people are expected to listen to adults, but more importantly, we must change the way we listen to them. April taught me to surrender my need to know the answers and listen from the vulnerable place of not knowing.”
This, from one of Seattle’s legendary captains of business.
“It’s a privilege,” Garrison said of her own work. “Maybe some days I get frustrated if my computer isn’t fast enough. I can cross over the hall and see parents and patients or read the book in the chapel, and everything does a 360 in terms of what is important.”
A grandchild saved
Seattle Children’s mission is to provide health care to the children of the Pacific Northwest regardless of race, gender, creed, ethnicity, disability or ability to pay. It’s also the primary teaching center and research site for the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Washington School of Medicine.
Its support network — the guilds, the fund-raisers, the boards of trustees — permeates almost every facet of the city’s culture. For all of the recognition and honors that have come Seattle Children’s way, however, it’s the individual stories that underpin the larger narrative.
Mary Jane Godejohn, 81, has volunteered for 25 years. Her grandson had spinal meningitis at 10 months; he’s 34 now. “We wouldn’t have him if it wasn’t for Children’s,” Godejohn said. “They absolutely saved his life — that’s why I am here.
“It has been the best experience I have ever had in my adult life,” the former employee of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Census Bureau said of her volunteer activities. “It has taught me patience, how to be a better human being. You learn kindness, patience, tolerance.”
It has also changed her way of being in the outside world: “I always say, ‘Good morning. How are you?’ to people, to let them know they’re part of my world and that they’re OK.”
Godejohn’s volunteer work at the hospital has covered numerous areas: volunteer orientation, the front desk and the family resource center. She has also worked with babies.
“It was very tough,” she said of the latter task, recalling the time when she was asked by a family to take a bedside picture with them and their priest before life support was withdrawn from their baby boy.
On the other hand: “You can’t get through a month here without hearing a wonderful story about a child saved. This place is called ‘The House of Miracles,’” she said. “It is that.”
It’s the stories. And the random images.
Outside, in the December-afternoon gloaming of the hospital’s parking garage, the shadowed figures of a young man and woman walk slowly toward their minivan parked in a long row of cars. The mother suddenly stops as he hurries ahead to open the van’s doors.
Ten yards behind, she rocks the swathed bundle in her arms while he fiddles with the baby seat in back. Then she pulls the blanket back a little to reveal a tiny face in full. She begins kissing her baby, again and again.
For those interested in the volunteer program at Seattle Children’s Hospital, go to www.seattlechildrens.org and click on “Ways to Help” and then “Volunteer.”
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