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stomp computerMy friend, Ellie is the sole volunteer coordinator at a large hospital complex. She oversees 500 giving souls who run the gift shop, man the information desks, fill ice water, organize fund-raising events, staff waiting rooms, help cashier at the coffee shop and other as sundry jobs. The hospital auxiliary is the governing body for the volunteers, so Ellie does have help in the form of a volunteer hierarchy. Because she is the only volunteer manager, Ellie has to rely on educating the various hospital departments’ staff on how to work with volunteers. It is exhausting and Ellie tells me that some departments are exemplary at treating volunteers, while others just don’t get it at all.
She said, “There’s medical records, who sadly use volunteers less and less because of electronic charting. But they still use them. The people in that department really like their volunteers. They know each of their volunteers’ birthdays, and when they are sick or have a family crisis. They treat them as people, not as pieces of equipment. They are a pleasure to work with and I find myself sending them the volunteer’s who are really great.”
But Ellie has other departments to deal with as well. I talked to her on Friday and she said, “yeah, it happened. One of our really good volunteers, Peg quit. Peg works, or rather worked in accounting. She has mad business skills and is funny and smart. She loves this hospital because we took care of her husband while he was going through chemo. She knows how precise our records need to be and just wanted to help where she could. And,” Ellie’s voice rose, “they keep talking about volunteers with professional experience, so Peg is perfect for them. Or was.”
Ellie paused. “About a year ago, several accounting managers retired and a whole new group were hired or promoted. They set a different tone, and the first time Peg came to me, I assured her that the new managers were just getting settled in. The second time Peg came, I paid them a courtesy visit. They all looked at me like I had two heads. This happened numerous times and because Peg had a long work history here, I knew it wasn’t her. It was them. They were unclear. They did not have the courtesy to call her if they did not have her work ready. They had their own territorial problems and tried to pull her into arguments.”
Ellie sighed. “I talked to that department oh, maybe five times in the past year. At first they seemed genuinely willing to try to do better. But then, each time I would go to see them, they grew more and more uninterested. And the trouble is, their manager is a senior manager in the system. I asked my boss about recourse, but he just told me to do the best I can. ”
I could hear Ellie tapping her pencil in the background. “Peg and I just talked. I offered, no pleaded with her to work in a different department like medical records where they would treat her good. She said no. She said she loved her job and it was just time to go. She said she knew that the people in her department wouldn’t change and she knew I did a great job trying to fix what couldn’t be fixed.
I stopped begging her. I could see the decision in her eyes. She was ok with quitting. Funny thing is, I’m not. I’m mad, really mad. How dare they treat her like that. Do you think they will ever, and I mean EVER get another volunteer? Not from me, not on my watch.” By this time Ellie was ranting the way she needed to. “Who do they think they are? Volunteers are not equipment you use and throw away! They’re people with skills and feelings and very few needs. Peg didn’t need anyone to fawn over her. She didn’t need tons of attention or praise. She just needed a decent working environment and some basic courtesy.”
Ellie drew a breath. “I know volunteers leave. They leave because they’re sick or they move or they change jobs or they retire or all kinds of things. But when they quit because of something that could have been fixed, I feel like we failed them. Our hospital failed them and I failed them because I could not fix it. It doesn’t matter that she didn’t quit because of something I did, it matters that she quit because of something I could not do.”
We talked some more and I pictured Ellie with a wound that would not heal, not properly anyway. I wondered how many wounds she had like that. I know I have several faded scars that have never completely healed on my volunteer manager body. They are mainly from the feelings of failure when a volunteer leaves or is mistreated and there was nothing more I could have done to prevent it.
I think we all have at least one or two.