Loving hearts, helping hands needed as hospice volunteers

By: By Jennifer Willems

When Kelly Stegall told people that she would be working as the Peoria volunteer coordinator for OSF Home Care Services, she got two reactions.

“People would be coming out of the woodwork saying, ‘Hospice is great! We don’t know what we would have done without them,'” she recalled. The second response was, “Isn’t that going to be kind of depressing?”

“What I have found is there is so much joy working with these families and working with the patients,” Stegall said. “The families are so appreciative and the patients are glad for those faces of people who care.”

But a caring face is just one part of the equation, according to Chuck Wilcox, a social worker who also provides chaplain services for OSF Hospice. The others are a loving heart and a helping hand.

“All of us in hospice believe it’s a calling, not a job,” explained Wilcox, who was the Peoria volunteer coordinator before Stegall succeeded him in January. “We get to go into places another person may not get to go. They open their homes to us . . . and we provide good emotional and spiritual care.”

“For some of these patients, our volunteers and staff are the only company they receive,” said Donna Medina, vice president for OSF Hospice.

April is National Volunteer Month, a time when OSF Home Care Services recognizes those who are that “caring face, loving heart and helping hand” to people with life-limiting illnesses and invites those who aren’t involved to consider it.

“Some just want to give back. Others want to volunteer and think this would be a worthy cause,” said Phyllis McNeil, volunteer coordinator for the eastern region of OSF Hospice in Bloomington. It was her own experience with hospice when her mother was dying that made her “practically beg” to be given her current position when there was an opening in 2009.

McNeil’s mother had Parkinson’s disease and after suffering a stroke she was placed in a hospice room at the hospital. McNeil was able to spend a month with her there.

“During that time — especially the last two weeks of her life, when she was still responsive with her eyes but couldn’t speak or move — I was able to tell her I loved her and what she meant to me,” McNeil told The Catholic Post.

In order for other families to have that experience trained volunteers are vital — especially since the goal is for patients and their families to be contacted within 24 hours of referral.

Volunteers receive about eight hours of training by OSF Home Care Services staff, some of it in the classroom. Included is information about death and dying, how to handle situations with the patients and their loved ones, religious and cultural diversity, and grief issues.

Volunteers may work directly with the patients and their families, or offer indirect service by doing clerical work, assisting with OSF memorial services, or helping at health fairs. There are as many ways to volunteer as there are ideas, Stegall said.

Some may mow the grass, rake leaves or bring a meal to a family dealing with a life-limiting illness. Others may run errands, buy groceries or bake a pie. Still others make teddy bears or prayer shawls, or help to assemble memory books and videos.

A new addition to the resources hospice volunteers can provide is a Reverie Harp. Lightweight and fairly small, it can be held or placed on a person’s chest while he or she plucks the strings.

Cecil “Ed” McGowan of Normal, for example, told McNeil that playing the Reverie Harp reminded him of an instrument he had in his childhood. Another gentleman who demurred at first found himself plucking the strings eventually and as he did so, he started reminiscing, she said.

With its warm tones and the way it gently vibrates when played, “it can be quite relaxing and comforting,” she said.

A common fear is that someone will die while a volunteer is sitting with them, but Wilcox said that happens very rarely.

People are also concerned about becoming emotionally attached to the person they’re visiting, but Stegall said grief counseling is available to the volunteers as well as the bereaved families.

McNeil said she wishes people would seek out hospice care sooner.
“What saddens all of us is when we get a patient too late and they’re not with us very long and we didn’t have the opportunity to help them,” she explained.

Stegall said there is a core group of about 30 volunteers in the Peoria area and would be happy if they could double that number.

The next training sessions will be held from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, April 21, and the following Thursday, April 28, at the office of OSF Home Care Services, 2265 W. Altorfer Drive, Peoria. For more information or to register, call Stegall at (309) 683-7914.

In addition to Peoria and the Bloomington-Normal area, OSF Home Care Services offers hospice care in Pontiac, Galesburg, Monmouth, Kewanee and Rockford. For more information about volunteer training in these areas, call (800) 673-5288.

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