Virtually all organizations, non-profit or not, would tell you that any and all volunteers who use their precious spare time to help out in myriad jobs — those tasks that otherwise would require paid employees to accomplish — are worth their weight in gold.
But there are some, such as Wendy Harding, who seemingly could take their pick of places to donate their extra hours of service each week. After all, she is a former Ledger-Enquirer Page One Teacher of the Year in 2002 and a Muscogee County School District Teacher of the Year in 2007. She taught Spanish and German at Hardaway High School before retiring in 2009.
Harding, however, has chosen St. Francis Hospital on Manchester Expressway in Columbus to give of her time at the moment, which includes serving as a valuable and active front information desk staffer a couple of days a week. Having done that for about four years, she also recently had her toy poodle Lacy certified for pet therapy with patients at the hospital.
Harding, 63, is one of about 150 volunteers at St. Francis, which is a full-service hospital, but perhaps is best known for its cardiac and stroke treatment and surgery capabilities. Since 1958, the St. Francis Auxiliary has relied on volunteers to assist with patients and their family members, as well as visitors. It all adds up to more than a million volunteer hours through the years.
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Kathryn Fussell, who has been the hospital’s director of Volunteer Services for about a decade, says “all of our volunteers are wonderful.” But she also says more always are needed and appreciated, and they can range from high-school teens to senior adults. Those wishing to apply for a volunteer position can contact her at 706-660-6045, or visit online at www.mystfrancis.com.
The Ledger-Enquirer visited with Harding recently at St. Francis Hospital, speaking to her inside a quiet chapel set aside for patients and families seeking faith and solace in troubled moments of their lives. This interview is edited for length and clarity.
Q. Why are you here at St. Francis Hospital?
A. I’ve had other volunteer work. I did it at the National Infantry Museum for four years, and then one of my friends said she thought I would like to volunteer at St. Francis. And when I came here, it was just the perfect fit. Being a teacher, I always helped out so much, and that is my heart — helping people and serving people.
Q. What did you like about St. Francis?
A. St. Francis is a much more intimate atmosphere for volunteers. We have a small group that knows each other and we’re like a family, and Kathryn, the director of volunteers, works hard to make sure we know each other and do things together.
Q. What are your duties here?
A. I am the co-chairman of the front information desk and I work on Mondays and Thursdays from 8 to 12:30. We are the face of the hospital, the first thing people see when they’re coming in. We greet people, we help them with directions. We answer questions, we problem solve. There are people who come in and say, ‘I’m seeing a heart doctor, but I don’t know their name.’ So that’s one of my favorite things is helping them try to figure that out and taking them to the place they need to be.
Q. You are here to help alleviate confusion?
A. Yes. We have over 50 doctors in the back of the hospital and the Butler Pavilion, and people don’t realize that. They come to the front not realizing that we need to get them to the back.
Q. What else do you do?
A. We answer the phones and give patients information over the phone. And I’m also one of the pet partners. I bring my pet two days a month and my little dog, Lacy, got certified as a pet therapy dog in May. She’s a little toy poodle. Most of the dogs are large. My dog is seven pounds, so we say she’s the smallest volunteer in the hospital, and she has her own name tag. (laughs)
Q. The pets help patients get their minds off being at the hospital?
A. Yes, and some people tell us that ‘you’ve made my day.’ So that’s why we do that. PetPartners.org is a national organization and the owners have to be certified online first. The pet also has to go through an evaluation for about an hour. It’s a big process. The dogs have to be certified through the vet, knowing that it will be OK around the patients. We have hand wipes and do sanitation and make sure there’s infection control and all of that. It’s really fun.
Q. How many folks do you interact with daily in the front lobby?
A. A countless amount of people (hundreds probably).
Q. Do you rely on your teacher skills?
A. My teacher skills have definitely helped me. For one thing, with the rosters and looking things up, and the pronunciation of names. I taught 33 years, so being able to pronounce names was a skill that I learned teaching, as well as knowing how to speak Spanish. I’ve been able to use my Spanish some. I was a Spanish and German teacher. When people call on the phone and I can tell they have a Spanish accent, I can speak to them in Spanish. It’s fun to be able to use my Spanish, and I have used my German a little bit.
Q. Your primary work is at the front desk?
A. It is, but I also move around in the hospital. Sometimes I’ll take people to certain areas of the hospital. One of the things I like to help people with, too, is finding their cars in the garage. You wouldn’t believe how many people come in here, people that are close to tears (and they’ll say): ‘I’m so sorry. I can’t find my car.’ So I get a description of their car and the license plate if possible, and take their keys with me to where they think it is, and I’ll find it and come back to them and then walk them back to their car. I just like to do stuff like that.
Q. At your core, why is it that you volunteer?
A. I really want to serve people. One of the T-shirts that Kathryn had printed for us said, ‘Volunteers Are the Heart of the Hospital,” and that’s what I think, too. The way we get rewarded the most is the thanks we get from people, the looks on their faces when you do things like take them to their car. They’ll give you a hug sometimes.
Q. So you’re at 1,500 volunteer hours here now?
A. Yes. I’ll usually volunteer two times a week, sometimes it can be three or four.
Q. Do you think you could ever consider not volunteering here?
A. No. This is my favorite place. I also volunteer at Anne Elizabeth Shepherd Home, the Rivercenter, the Community Orchestra. I play in the orchestra at church. But I dedicate so much of my time here to St. Francis. I started out as one day a week and it’s grown to where I’m training people at the front desk and trying to recruit people to come as volunteers. It helps to know all of the teachers who retire, so we try to recruit other people.
Q. You’re also staying active and meeting people?
A. It’s always something different, always something interesting, and always feeling like we’re helping people. There’s people from all over town, all walks of life. People who are volunteers here are from different walks of life, too. We have professionals from business, the Army, teachers. My partner up here at the front desk (Carol Ann Jones) managed a $500 million budget at Fort Benning.
Q. Have you ever experienced an emotional moment with patients?
A. I heard somebody honking their horn out there (in front of the hospital), and I looked outside and a man had fallen. I went out there and determined that he was unconscious. I came back in and we have this code called ‘Rapid Response.’ So I called them, and that means teams from all over the hospital came running here with equipment to treat the man. That was one of the big things that has come up while I’ve been here.
Q. The bottom line is you have to remain alert for anything?
A. We check things in the lobby and people walking through, making sure they’re not bringing in a weapon or something like that. There have been people that have tried to bring their own dogs in, but unless it’s a service dog, that’s not allowed.
Q. What’s the most challenging aspect of your volunteer job?
A. It’s having people understand that we are here to help them. And when they get frustrated and upset, we need to keep calm about it and realize they’re not criticizing us. We’re still going to keep a calm appearance. We tell them we’re volunteers and we’re here to help you, and we’re sorry that you’re upset.
Q. You have to be a calming influence?
A. That’s another thing about volunteering is that we’re here to help them calm down, because a lot of people who come in here are very anxious about medical procedures or their loved ones. We don’t know what they’re going through.
Q. Could this hospital do without its volunteers?
A. Oh, no. If you look at the number of hours, the million hours that we’ve given in service, that’s so much money that they would have had to spend on someone else.
Q. Finally, what’s the most rewarding aspect of your volunteer work here?
A. Feeling like when people leave here, they’ll say: St. Francis is a good place for my health care. St. Francis is the place I want to return to, because I know that I’ll be helped by volunteers, as well as the staff and the doctors.
Hometown: Bay Village, Ohio
Current residence: Phenix City
Education: 1972 graduate of Simsburg High School; earned a bachelor of arts degree from Auburn University in 1975 and a master’s degree in 1976
Previous jobs: Graduate teaching assistant at Auburn University; and teacher of Spanish and German at Hardaway High School in Columbus
Family: Daughter, Melissa Harding Behne, a middle school band director in Mesquite, Texas; grandson, Caleb Behne, 4 months old; and son, John David Harding, an assistant professor of writing and research at St. Leo University in St. Leo, Fla.
Leisure time: When not volunteering, she enjoys playing the clarinet and handbells
Volunteer work: Activities and organizations she has been involved in through the years include St. Francis Hospital (front desk and pet therapy program), St. Mark United Methodist Church (active member, orchestra, playing the clarinet and the handbells), St. Mark United Methodist Church (Meals on Wheels delivery), St. Mark United Methodist Church (Care Committee), RiverCenter for the Performing Arts (head usher, usher manager, over 500 hours), National Infantry Museum (volunteer, over 1000 hours), International Officers (civilian sponsor), International Friendship Ministry, Columbus Academy of Lifelong Learning, Columbus Community Orchestra (president and playing the clarinet), Lunch with the Lord (cashier), Soroptimist International of Columbus (membership committee), Daughters of the American Revolution (recording secretary), Partners in Education (board of directors), Muscogee Educational Excellence Foundation (board of directors), Columbus Christian Women’s Club (hostess), Anne Elizabeth Shepherd Home Auxiliary, Salvation Army Women’s Auxiliary, Columbus Symphony Guild (correspondence secretary), Muscogee Retired Educators Association, Georgia Retired Teachers Assocation, and the Delta Kappa Gamma Women Teachers Society