Volunteers Persist Despite Pandemic

When forced by COVID to stay home, Cincinnati Children's volunteers found creative ways to keep giving.

Volunteers Persist Despite Pandemic

When forced by COVID to stay home, Cincinnati Children's volunteers found creative ways to keep giving.

Once upon a time at Cincinnati Children’s, there was a department of volunteers who loved brightening the days of patients, families, and staff. They were 800 strong, ranging from teenagers to 90-somethings. Some were even furry and four-legged. They cuddled babies, played games with patients, comforted parents, sewed clothing and dolls, crocheted blankets, cleaned toys, and made themselves indispensable to the functioning of the medical center week after week after week.

Then in March 2020, COVID happened. Normal operations ceased, and Volunteer Services had to send everyone home—indefinitely.

“We had just started onboarding students for our summer program, which would have added 150 more volunteers to our roster,” said Amy Biersack, director, Volunteer Services. “In fact, we were scheduled to have the information session with parents in the Sabin auditorium that week when we got word that we were shutting down and there could be no volunteers on campus. We had to scramble to let everyone know.”

Thus began the strange experience of navigating a worldwide pandemic. Little did anyone know what to expect or how long it would last.

But our volunteers demonstrated that they are dedicated, creative and adaptable to any situation.

How Can I Help? Faced with such an abrupt stop to their work, they soon began to figure out ways they could still support the medical center from home. Sewing room volunteers, with help from Kindervelt members, addressed the mask shortage in the pandemic’s early days by sewing thousands of masks and donating them to patients and families who otherwise had no access to personal protective equipment. These were steamed, packed in individual bags, and distributed by individual physicians at the hospital and community agencies, such as City Gospel Mission and Every Child Succeeds.

Diane Seitz, sewing room coordinator, took things a step further, dedicating a room in her house to sewing supplies. She dropped off fabric to volunteers all over the city so they could continue to make soft helmets, quilts, dolls, and clothes at home. Then she arranged for them to be delivered to the hospital for patients.

Said Biersack, “The sewing room volunteers continued to provide the exact same service they did when they were here onsite. They didn’t miss a beat.”

Biersack and her staff started a digital newsletter to help volunteers feel connected and create awareness of what was happening at the medical center. That’s how they learned about the food banks at the Pediatric Primary Care Center and Hopple Street.

Said Biersack, “We coordinated with the social worker at Hopple Street to come up with an Amazon wish list and included the link to the list in our newsletter. In just a few weeks’ time, the volunteers donated more than $3,000 worth of essential items.”

They gave a repeat performance in December when they realized they couldn’t participate in the annual Jingle Bell Junction, a free toy shop for parents and caregivers of children who are spending the holidays as inpatients at the hospital. Using a link provided by Development, volunteers donated money and toys as a way to stay involved.

Volunteers collected donations of hand-sewn masks and other items to be distributed to patients, families and community agencies.

Volunteer Bob Hamp stepped in to bring holiday cheer to patients in the Perlman Center when they couldn't get their usual Santa because of the pandemic.

Hamp, minus his disguise, is a great volunteer, says Amy Biersack, director, Volunteer Services. He was especially helpful at the Liberty COVID vaccine clinics.

A Gradual Return Despite these extraordinary efforts, staff still missed the volunteers’ presence acutely. As people became vaccinated and the number of new COVID cases ebbed a bit, Perioperative Services was the first group to ask permission for volunteers to come back. With family members relegated to D2.40 and the Family Resource Center to wait while their child was in surgery, finding their way to the Post Anesthesia Care Unit afterward was confusing, and it greatly affected flow to have staff escort them.

“Senior leaders—among them Patty Manning, Chief of Staff; Josh Schaffzin, Infection Control, and sometimes even Steve Davis, president and CEO—made themselves available to consider these permission requests and decide if the reward outweighed the risk,” explained Biersack. “We came up with guidelines to help in our decision-making—would it result in a significant improvement? Was it a task that would be difficult for staff to do? Was there no direct patient contact, or only limited, indirect patient contact? Based on these criteria, we were able to gradually bring in a select number of volunteers to support staff in other areas.”

Volunteers proved flexible in what they were willing to do. Those who were used to being at the bedside happily took jobs cleaning toys. One Emergency Department volunteer was sent to Green Township, making communication boards, cutting out Velcro, and laminating cards for Speech Therapy. A sewing room volunteer went to College Hill and found a new home with the school program, making copies of worksheets and putting binders together.

Volunteers also played a huge role in supporting the COVID vaccine clinics.

“We were able to provide volunteers for all the clinics,” said Biersack. “They worked so hard and made such a difference. Edith Markoff, who runs the dog visitation program, provided dogs for the clinics. They would walk up and down the lines, offering a wonderful diversion for the kids who were nervous about getting an injection. We even had college students who gave up their Saturday mornings to come in and help.”

Just as Biersack and her team felt like they were getting a handle on the process for bringing volunteers back, COVID began to surge again.

“In January of this year, the bottom dropped out,” said Biersack. “The staffing crisis at the hospital mirrored the one we were experiencing among our existing volunteers. They were calling in sick, or they had family members who were ill. We reached a point where we felt we needed to pull back a bit, especially since many of our volunteers are retired and in the high-risk group. We could sense that they were nervous about coming in but were afraid to tell us because they didn’t want to let anybody down.”

The announcement of a month-long break was greeted with relief, but by mid-February, the surge had eased, and volunteers began coming back. At the beginning of March, Biersack got approval to recall the whole team.

Knox, a volunteer dog, was feeling a little shy on his first day back on the job after two years away.

John Moores, an artist who volunteered in the Activity Center pre-pandemic, used the time during COVID to make paintings for kids who were terminally ill.

An example of one of Moore's paintings, using the handprints of the child and parents to create whimsical animals.

Time for a Reset By this time, the “whole team” consisted of about 200 volunteers—600 fewer than when the pandemic began.

“For many of our older volunteers, things had changed in their lives,” said Biersack. “If you’re in your late 80s, two years is a long time. Some had family members who didn’t think it was a good idea for them to be in such a highly populated environment.”

Biersack assigned the remaining 200 as judiciously as possible. Where some areas previously had 15 volunteers, they now had three.

“When we received a request, we’d look at our list to see who had prior experience that was similar to what an area needed,” Biersack explained. “It worked out okay for the most part.”

In many ways, COVID has afforded Volunteer Services an opportunity to reset their processes and make improvements.

“We worked with Human Resources to build an online safety training specific to volunteers that mirrors the professional hospital training module employees take every fall,” said Biersack. “And now we’re rebuilding our online orientation, which honestly had been cobbled together over the years, so it matches that.”

They designed a version of HIPAA training that highlighted what volunteers need to know and recreated the online application to join the volunteer program.

“We created training for new volunteer supervisors, including dog supervisors,” said Biersack. “Especially now, when we are recruiting heavily for new volunteers, this new training will ensure that everyone is getting consistent information they need to be successful.”

COVID also brought some important truths into focus for Biersack.

“There’s no handbook for bringing a department of volunteers back from a global pandemic,” she said. “We were just winging it. But it became very clear that we have a strong infrastructure supporting our volunteers that a lot of hospitals don’t have. Our senior leadership is engaged in terms of recognizing what our volunteers do and helping to figure out the best way to proceed. They were so responsive and respectful as they carefully considered any potential risk to which volunteers might be exposed.

“I’m also so proud of the level of dedication our volunteers have shown. It’s impressive that, even though they hadn’t set foot in the hospital for over a year, they were still turning in their flu shot documentation and doing their safety training, not knowing when they were going to be able to come back. They made such an effort to stay engaged with us. Even a pandemic couldn’t cool their enthusiasm for supporting our staff and patients. I know I speak for all my team when I say we feel really privileged to work with these wonderful folks.”

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