Every Sunday, a group of students from the College spend an hour at the Sweet Brook Rehabilitation and Nursing Center, a residency for elders three miles away from campus. Each student spends time reading, chatting or doing art therapy with their “resident,” with whom he or she has been matched with the goal of establishing a long-term relationship. These students are Sweet Brook Nursing Home Volunteers, but they also answer to “The Friendly Visitors.” The Sweet Brook Nursing Home Volunteers Program is Sweet Brook’s program for student volunteers at the College, also known at the College as the Friendly Visitors Program. Currently, there are approximately 150 residents but only nine Friendly Visitors. Although the center also takes applications from the general community, many residents are still deprived of frequent one-on-one personal interactions. The residents who do get matched with volunteers, are targeted because of circumstances that make them prone to loneliness. Some residents have no surviving family members, others have friends and family that do not visit as often as hoped.
According to Ashley Ngo ’16 and Megan Steele ’16, co-presidents of the Friendly Visitors Program, the program has been ongoing for years and has had a steady stream of approximately 20 student volunteers, but dwindled last year because of coordination problems that almost wiped it out altogether. After communicating with Sweet Brook and convincing the coordinators to read their applications, the program survived and now expects an increase in student involvement next year.
Many students initially join when they become attracted to various aspects of the program, but stay as they grow personally attached to their residents. For Paige Chardavoyne ’17, seeing the difference volunteers make from the perspective of the elder’s family encouraged her to give back to the community. Chardavoyne’s grandfather had lived in a house for seniors, and “when [the volunteer] came in he would smile … It took so much for him to smile so we knew that [their relationship] had a really strong impact on him.” Before seeing her grandfather’s interactions with the volunteers, Chardavoyne thought that maybe the volunteers do not “make that much of a difference,” but then she realized “how much of a difference [the volunteers] were able to make.”
Ngo has had lots of memories with her residents. “[The resident] had dementia so she couldn’t remember my name, but she remembered my face. She would show me pictures of her pets and her husband, and I knew she really looked forward to our meetings,” recalled Ngo as she remembered her very first resident, whom she met as a first-year. Although Ngo initially joined the program because it is one of the few that counts as clinical volunteering experience for pre-medicine students, her interactions with her first resident encouraged her to get to know two more residents over her next four years as well as to become the co-president of the program.
Volunteering at nursing homes has been an important part of Steele’s life since high school. “Sometimes our volunteers will be the only visitors the residents at Sweet Brook have for weeks because their families can’t make it to the facility,” Steele said. “What makes it worth it for me is that I know I’m making a difference in their lives. Just an hour of my time per week really makes the people I visit happy.”
Steele’s favorite memory is one from high school. When the resident she had been visiting won a game of Bingo, she chose a stuffed skunk as the prize and gave it to her, “I actually still have it in my room today. It’s nice to have something to remember her by since she has unfortunately passed away,” Steele said. To Steele, Ngo and many other volunteers, even if their residents pass away, the happy memories stay as a memento of shared stories and fun together.
When asked to give a few words to potential volunteers, Ngo said, “Many students our age are healthy, with family and friends around, so it is hard to understand how it feels to be fully dependent on nurses and not to have friends and family around.”
“The ones who are bedridden can’t just choose to get out of bed and talk to people,” Chardavoyne added.
“So just going and talking to someone for one hour per week means so much to them … It can bring them so much happiness,” Ngo said. “In conclusion, it’s just a really great way to give back.”
The Sweet Brook Nursing Home Volunteers Program will be accepting new volunteers after students return for the spring semester. Students will receive information through either email or Daily Messages.