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Jennifer Lawrence Nelson

Jennifer Lawrence Nelson, CVA


Recently I had the pleasure of sitting down with an amazing Leader of Volunteers, Jennifer Lawrence Nelson, CVA. The Manager of Volunteer Services at Maple Grove Hospital in Maple Grove MN,  Jennifer, has an infectious laugh and an approachable aura about her. I literally had to call her back to complete my interview because the majority of the time, we ended up chatting like old friends. I could picture volunteers feeling completely welcomed in her office (which incidentally, has a harp in the corner under a lovely velvet cover).

Jennifer has been leading volunteers for over ten years, four of those years spent at a nursing home facility and now six years at Maple Grove Hospital. She was the first graduate to letter in community service at her high school. Yep, the first.

Jennifer served in the Peace Corps for over two years after graduating college. Her assignment took her to the country of Kyrgyzstan, a rugged central Asian country that sits along the historical Silk Road.

Her Peace Corps experience began with 2 days of training in Philadelphia and then living with a host family for three months, learning the language and culture. While the host family was close to the Peace Corps hub, her permanent site was in a small village where she lived for 2 years.

VPT(volunteerplaintalk): What was your assignment like?

J (Jennifer): My job as a business volunteer was working with craft groups, such as a sewing group. I assisted them in learning business practices. Something as simple as “why do we need a calendar to keep track of projects” was part of my helping.

While I was there, I was able to start a business and training center with the help of a grant and I also wrote a grant to expand the local public school cafeteria to meet the local law requirements regarding providing the mandatory provisions for the students.

I also had the opportunity to concentrate on a second area of work related to a passion of mine so I taught English and started a leadership club for girls. We established the first “take your daughter to work day.”  I also supported English clubs and English camps in my village and state.

VPT: I’m in awe.

J: (laughing) I get that. People respond with the “that’s awesome.”  But I feel like with strength of will, you can do it. I did it.

I will say that being in the Peace Corps gives me street cred with my volunteers. They realize what I’m doing is not just a job, it’s something that I believe in.

VPT: What did the Peace Corps teach you?

J: I learned that I’m tougher than I thought. At the end of my assignment I lived on my own. I found that if there was a spider, I had to kill it (something I would avoid at all cost in the US). It gives you the sense that you have to do what you have to do.

VPT: What else?

J: It changed me. I now have a global view of people. I don’t see the world the same way as I did and I think beyond America and our way of life. I think beyond my life here in Minnesota.

VPT: Can you tell me about the volunteer program here at Maple Grove Hospital?

J: We have so many volunteer opportunities here because volunteers have been a part of our organization since the day we opened.  In so many departments they are truly integrated and are able to do some tasks and take on responsibilities that might not be allowed in other settings.

VPT: Any interesting new programs?

J: We have a pet therapy program started with the help of the North Star Therapy animals that visit our hospital patients. It was started by one of our volunteers and is going well. We have lots of good stories about the interactions. We are careful with who is allowed to come on board, because you have to realize that we need not just well-trained animals, but also well-trained humans. After all, the people are still the volunteers.

We also have quite a few volunteers in guest services, which is a position they love. They thrive on it because it is a bit like being a detective. They have to help people find where they need to go, who they need to see etc. The volunteers take it seriously.

VPT: What are some of the challenges you face?

J: Oddly enough, one of the challenges is the perception that volunteering at our hospital is going to be like the medical shows on TV.

VPT: Really?

J: Yes, I’ll interview a new volunteer and they will reference a show, especially Grey’s Anatomy.  They imagine it will be exciting and glamorous.

Another challenge is helping volunteers understand that even if they are stocking a customer’s room with supplies, they have that 2 minutes to forge a relationship with the customer. It’s something we can all easily forget.

Even with the high schoolers, entering a room and picking up the food trays, they may spend 45 seconds but they too have a chance to make a difference.

VPT: Who does all the training for volunteers?

J: Our experienced volunteers step up into leadership roles and they train other volunteers.

VPT: Do you meet with them?

J: Yes, we have regular meetings to discuss what is working and what can be improved.

VPT: You transitioned from a role at a nursing home to the hospital setting. What was that like?

J: There was a learning curve. I went from a place with long-term residents to a place where customers stay a short time, get well, and go home.

VPT: How did that transition go?

J: I found that our HR department was a good source of help and advice.

VPT: Are volunteer numbers different in each industry?

J: Yes. Maple Grove Hospital is a highly visible and well-known volunteer opportunity in town, especially for high school students who want to meet their community service requirements. We onboard about 30 new volunteers each month.  At the nursing home, I was lucky to get 1 new volunteer a month.

VPT: Any theories?

J: Volunteering for a nursing home is not sexy. Go back to the television shows about hospitals. That’s a lot sexier.

VPT: What type of advertising did you try in the nursing home?

J: I tried everything. I put out ads, used online services, put notices in church bulletins, and even made business cards for the volunteers to give out.

VPT: Did you find there was a difference in those who volunteer for a nursing home and those who volunteer at a hospital?

J: Well, approximately 55% of our volunteers at Maple Grove Hospital are students. Others come because of word of mouth from the volunteers who work here. They tell their friends that this is a great place to volunteer. At the nursing home, which was actually part of a much larger campus consisting of senior health and housing, home health and hospice, I found that volunteers were family members that volunteered for activities while their loved ones were in the nursing home.

VPT: Would they stop volunteering once their loved one was no longer there?

J: Usually, yes. Other volunteers came from residents of the senior apartments on campus. It was convenient and also, they might have friends there or they saw themselves there in the future and viewed it as their community.

VPT: If you could bring something from your volunteers here at the hospital to the nursing home and vice versa, what might that be? What do you wish you could swap?

J: Hmmm, I think from the nursing home I’d want to have the dedication of the volunteers, they were so loyal to the organization and mission. They had a deep connection to the work and they saw the value in their volunteering.  You know, when a resident died, we didn’t just lose that resident and our relationship with them, we also lost our relationship with their families too.

VPT: So, a long-term relationship with clients has a longer retention?

J: It’s loyalty. And maybe the times are different now. Loyalty is rare, maybe because the speed of life keeps people from being loyal to more than a few people or causes in their life.

But, from the hospital, I’d want to bring the amount of volunteers.

(While we were talking there was a knock on the door. One of Jennifer’s volunteers had brought her a jar of pickles and some homemade corn relish.)

VPT: (chuckling) What was the most memorable thing a volunteer gave you?

J: A couple of volunteers in the senior housing complex when I worked at the nursing home were moving out. They said, “honey, come and shop in our apartment. You’re getting married.” I was at the time. They said, “We want you to have anything you want, we can’t take it with us.” I got 3 large pieces of furniture. I think I still have one of the pieces today. It’s funny, but they viewed me like a grandchild because I reminded them of their grandchildren which was ok. I appreciated how generous they were with me.

At the hospital here, one of the volunteers and her husband did something very sweet. Just after I moved to a different town I mentioned that I wasn’t sure what route I should take to and from work. One day, she and her husband drove to my new town and mapped the route, printed it out, highlighting the best route and gave it to me. I still take that route today.

VPT: That was a really thoughtful gift.

J: It was. My husband said that he never had anyone do anything like that for him. And he’s worked in a church! (laughing)

But he also said to me, “that’s how you know you’re loved.”

VPT: You attended the National Summit on Volunteer Engagement Leadership in July. Is there anything you took away from that experience? Anything you want to share with other volunteer managers?

J: Yes, do not let the momentum from the summit die. Get involved somehow and do something different. Write an article, take a chance, but do something. Be involved.

VPT: Thank you Jennifer, not only for spending the time talking with me, but for your leadership in guiding your volunteers and helping to move our profession forward.