Volunteers make a considerable contribution to the effective working of most hospices. However, due to the complex needs of many of the patients we care for, volunteers under the age of 18 tend to be precluded from patient-facing roles.
In September 2015, Princess Alice Hospice introduced an innovative new volunteering programme aimed at 17-year-olds interested in a career in healthcare.
The Ward Support Volunteer programme was instigated and coordinated by the volunteer development manager, supported by the hospice education team.
For the first cohort, we had 14 young people commit to volunteering for four hours a week, for six months (September 2015 to March 2016), supporting staff to care for patients on the 24-bed inpatient unit.
As this volunteering programme is aimed at anyone aged 17 or over, we advertised via local schools and colleges.
At interview, potential volunteers have to demonstrate an interest in healthcare, an understanding of the work of the hospice and the maturity and communication skills to be able to be a genuine benefit to the ward.
They also must to be willing to commit to four hours a week (4.30 – 8.30 pm on a designated day) for six months.
Training and supporting volunteers
When we started this programme, we were aware that this was very unfamiliar territory for both the young person and the ward team.
All volunteers attend a training day, which explores communication skills and what they can expect and provides time to address any concerns they may have.
The day is very practical, with volunteers learning skills such as hand massage, an overview of infection control and having time to ‘experiment’ on the ward – for example, experiencing what it feels like to be fed through a straw while lying down.
On this introductory day, volunteers also have the opportunity to meet their assigned ‘buddy’. These are experienced volunteers who provide support and act as a point of contact. Young volunteers and their buddy meet up for regular reviews and check in with each other via text or face to face.
What do the volunteers do?
Prior to their arrival there were extensive discussions with the ward about what the volunteers should do.
As confidence in the programme and the individuals grew over the six months, this changed slightly, but their key roles include talking with patients and relatives, providing tea and replenishing stocks.
One of the volunteers, Amelia, sums up how her time was spent and the impact it had:
“I remember a particularly anxious patient who rung her bell constantly. I massaged her hands and feet and brought her more cups of tea than I could possibly count. Her anxiety was often alleviated by my company. I felt that I was truly making a difference to her life.”
What did the volunteers gain from the programme?
A number of the young people commented on how useful the experience had been to put on their personal statements and to talk about in interview. For those interested in studying medicine we also organised a ‘meet the medics’ session with a consultant and junior doctor.
The 13 volunteers who completed the six-month programme all reached the required standard to be awarded the Care Certificate.
The main gain for the volunteers, however, was an increase in their confidence and ability to communicate. They felt able to talk openly with a range of people and, where appropriate, take the initiative. One of the ward nurses coined the phrase that they were ‘rightly independent’.
Commenting on the value of the experience, one of the volunteers Robyn said: “I don’t think I would have got medicine offers without it but, more importantly, it has made me a much more confident and compassionate person.”
How did the ward feel about the programme?
At the start of the programme, the main anxieties expressed by the ward team were whether there would be enough for the young people to do, whether they would be able to cope with some of the distressing experiences they may encounter and whether they would be able to commit to the hours. Through the course of the programme all of these were resolved.
“The ward support volunteers have been a fantastic addition to the ward. They inject some much needed energy when they arrive at 4.30pm and to have enthusiastic, inquisitive young people on the ward has benefited the staff as well as the patients and visitors. The project has been a real success and I couldn’t imagine the ward without the young people now,” said one senior staff nurse.
What next for the programme
Following the success of the first cohort – 13 young people from of the first cohort successfully completed the programme and were awarded the Care Certificate – the next cohort has already started and will be with us from March to September.
The only significant change we have made is the introduction of basic manual handling guidance as part of the training day so that, with the ward team, they will be able to assist in the moving of patients using slide sheets.
If you would like to find out more about the ward support volunteer programme you can contact Zoe at firstname.lastname@example.org