By Gloria Puurveen
Closely bordering Canada’s subarctic taiga, the city of Grande Prairie, Alberta is located just north of the 55th parallel and surrounded by farmland and the mighty boreal forest. While this cold, remote, and rugged landscape shapes daily life, it does not dampen the warmth, kind-heartedness, and generosity that exudes from the staff, volunteers and community partners involved with the Grande Prairie Palliative Care Society. The Society has been serving Grande Prairie and the surrounding rural communities since 2005. Educated in social work, Jancey Dolen, the Program Director, has been with the society since 2021, and alongside Executive Director Hope McNally and staff Samantha, Fallon and Dylan, have been working with volunteers to deliver a variety of innovative programs that include Nav-CARE volunteer navigators, companioning through grief, death doulas, pen pal program, virtual visiting, and the comfort care bag program, to name just a few.
The Society’s 87 active volunteers have been pivotal in meeting the diverse quality of life needs of those living with declining health; and despite great distances geographically, they connect with approximately 300 clients over thousands of square kilometers. Both Hope and Jancey are effusive about the dedication shown by their volunteers.
“The staff and managers sing our volunteers praises. It is a testament to the great caliber of volunteers,” explains Jancey. “The staff ask me, ‘where are you finding these volunteers?’ And I feel like the universe is putting them right in our lap. We train them, we do a lot of coaching, but I think they are genuinely coming to us with a passion for helping people.”
For example, some volunteers are motivated to volunteer in hospice palliative care because of personal experiences journeying alongside a loved one, which compels them to do that for somebody else. These experiences, amongst others, fuels “empathy and compassion, and the skills needed to work in that environment” says Jancey.
At the heart of Jancey’s role is to ensure the ‘best fit’ for the volunteers – which includes identifying who would be a great fit for a particular task and what characteristics of the client’s situation aligns with the personality and skills of each volunteer. This alignment provides the fuel to ignite profound human connection between volunteers and clients – contributing to bonds forged in reciprocity and mutuality.
“Volunteers need to know that what I’m looking for is that their cup be filled just as much as our clients,” Jancey articulates.
In developing these deeply human connections, volunteers are then poised to make a significant impact in the lives of clients and their families. When volunteers start their work, Jancey follows up with them to see how things are going and whether they feel they are making a difference.
“I can tell that my client is very excited to see me and that I offer a bit of reprieve from the monotony of her situation,” explains one volunteer. “She’s also very thankful when I’m there and can help morally assist her when her condition is flaring up and she’s feeling a bit helpless.”
Even over the past couple years when in-person visiting was restricted due to the pandemic, volunteers continued to connect with clients through the Society’s iPad program. Envisioned to broaden their reach to more remote communities, the Society was well positioned to capitalize on this program during the pandemic by facilitating virtual visits using more than 100 devices.
“My volunteer and I text message and send photos on our iPads. We talk at least three times a week. This has opened up my life so much – my world is so small and often it feels overwhelming and not worth living,” shared a client. “Through texting with my volunteer, I get to step out into her world for a while. I get to hear stories about her family, about her animals and about what is going on in her day-to-day life. So many times, I will be crying and wishing I could just die and then I get a text from her. She always makes me laugh and she always gives me hope for tomorrow.”
For both Jancey and the incredible team at Grande Prairie Palliative Care Society, their work fills them with meaning and purpose. Working with volunteers and connecting with and supporting people who are on difficult journeys living with declining health fills their cup just as much as it does for the clients and volunteers they interact with.