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After the pandemic stalled volunteer efforts, Kansas City doctors tout the gift of time

University of Kansas Health System
The University of Kansas Health System is accepting volunteers again this holiday season and will bring people in for an interview to learn more about them and find a good match.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, two-thirds of volunteers in the U.S. cut down their volunteer hours or stopped altogether. Now, the University of Kansas Health System is encouraging people to re-engage in their philanthropic efforts.

When Brian Osbourne's wife was at the University of Kansas Health System for lymphoma treatment, Osbourne walked the hospital halls.

He said someone from the facility was always available to point him in the right direction during that stressful time.

"There was always a staff member and or volunteer that would say, 'Hey, can I help you out?'" Osbourne said. "It was therapeutic for us and I appreciated that so much."

Inspired by the friendly faces he saw, Osbourne decided to do the same for others as a volunteer pathfinder at the hospital. He helps people find their way around the complex and delivers mail.

He said the interactions and connections he formed helped reaffirm his faith in people.

But when the COVID-19 pandemic arrived and cases began to pile up, KU Health System and other hospitals had to shut down volunteer programs, leaving a gap in patients' and providers' day-to-day lives.

"It just changed the way that everyone did everything," said Vanessa Goldsberry, director of volunteer and guest services for the health system. "Staff then were doing tasks that our volunteers typically would do."

A 2020 study by Fidelity Charitable found two-thirds of U.S. volunteers decreased or ceased all volunteering after the pandemic began.

Goldsberry said they made every effort to keep volunteers involved, even through remote means, but it was just a different experience.

"For a lot of our volunteers, that filled their cup. It was their social interaction and that emotional paycheck," she said. "When that was taken away, it was really felt not only on the health system side, but on their end."

Greg Nawalanic, a clinical psychologist with KU Health System, said volunteering is an opportunity to boost self-esteem and create a sense of identity. For older volunteers, it can fill the void after the end of their careers.

When the pandemic disrupted the habits of volunteers and required them to shelter in place, that left another void. Nawalanic said this creates space for maladaptive behaviors to form.

These can include substance abuse, impulsive spending and, in the case of many of these volunteers, social isolation.

"When our brain notices that we're isolating, it starts to fill in the blanks and say, you know what? We must not be all right," Nawalanic said. "It makes it ripe from the takeover of depression and or anxiety."

KU Health System is now accepting volunteers again, which has made a big difference around the hospital.

"When we came back after COVID, (patients) would stop us in the hall and thank us for coming back and tell us how much they missed us," said volunteer Jennifer McCormack.

Still, some volunteers have found the habit of isolating hard to break. In addition, some volunteers are wary of returning to a space with sick people while the pandemic still lingers.

Hospitals are focusing more now on younger volunteers. Goldsberry said the system has been reaching out to schools and seeking young professionals looking to enrich their lives after work or on weekends.

For those who are still scared to come back, Goldsberry and Nawalanic both said that all volunteers are always fully trained on how to be safe around the hospital, including hand hygiene and masking.

KU Health System endeavors to make the application process easy, as well. And if someone is unsure of where they might fit in, the hospital will often bring them in for an interview to learn more about them and find a good match.

Currently, the most popular volunteer area is the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit.

Whether it be to capture the holiday spirit or kick some of these bad habits, Nawalanic encouraged people to join volunteer efforts again.

"This is the holiday season and people struggle to figure out how, how am I gonna afford gifts?" Nawalanic said. "I think that something that's been true for forever is that the greatest gift you can give is a gift of your time."

As KCUR's health reporter, I cover the Kansas City metro in a way that reflects our expanding understanding of what health means and the ways it touches different communities and different areas in distinct ways. I will provide a platform to amplify ideas and issues often underrepresented in the media and marginalized people and communities in an authentic and honest way that goes beyond the surface of the issues. I will endeavor to find and include in my work local experts and organizations that have their ears to the ground and a beat on the health needs of the community. Reach me at noahtaborda@kcur.org.
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