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Volunteers Offer Special Form of Therapy

By Alice Reid
Friday, January 11, 2008

Jon Bell was rifling through a crowded Children's Hospital storage closet searching for coloring books one recent evening. There were crayons, but no books.

Never mind. He headed up to the third floor, his pockets crammed with other stuff patients might like -- bottles of bubble mixture, packs of Uno cards and a container of 64 crayons. He'd find the books later.

As a hospital volunteer, Bell is known for having a few coloring books to dole out, perhaps a throwback to his time as a patient at Children's where he was treated for kidney failure over a three-year period.

"I've blocked out much of that time," he said, referring to 28 hospital stays. "But I do remember one time, a doctor giving me a coloring book and some crayons."

It helped, he said, combat the boredom while he underwent more than 1,000 blood transfusions, then the standard treatment for kidney failure. When he was 7, the problem cleared up as suddenly as it had arrived, and today Bell, 62, says he has no ill effects.

Volunteering every Thursday night at Children's Hospital is his way of giving back.

Bell, an electrical engineer from Greenbelt, is one of about 400 volunteers who give at least 40,000 hours of time to the hospital each year, helping to entertain patients and file papers, among other tasks. About 200 are specially trained, as Bell has been, to visit bedsides, where they provide diversion for children and sometimes give their parents a much-needed break. Wearing blue smocks labeled "Volunteers giving kids the time of their lives," they ply the halls, checking to see who needs a new DVD to watch, who might be amused with a song or an art project, and which parents could use a respite.

Volunteers "give the great gift of time when a family is under stress and needs it most," said Julie Hudtloff, the hospital's volunteer coordinator. "There's always a child who needs a companion. After all, children shouldn't stop being children because they're in the hospital. Volunteers keep up the pace of childhood."

Although patient-care volunteers must be adults, the hospital also has a contingent of high school students known as Dr. Bear's Ambassadors, who entertain outpatients in clinic waiting rooms, and help with other activities.

Being a volunteer who works with patients isn't for everyone, and there is a rigorous process of interviews, physicals, background checks and a 14-hour training program. (To find out more, visit the hospital's Web site http://www.dcchildrens.com/GetInvolved/default.aspx and click on volunteering.) Volunteers are encouraged to spend no more than two or three hours a week at the hospital. The work can be emotionally draining, since volunteers inevitably bond with families, and not every outcome may be a happy one.

Terry Orzechowski, who directs the hospital's volunteer program, urges volunteers to talk about anything they find upsetting. "As long as you can talk about it, you're going to be okay," she said. "For those families, you were able to walk with them on one of the most difficult paths of their lives. There's nothing more important."

Last week there seemed nothing more important for Bell than figuring out how to divert 10-year-old Kaylin Edmonds, then on her fourth day in the hospital.

First there was conversation -- "You gotta get better cause the food here is pretty boring" -- and then a promise of a portable DVD player and a movie for the evening -- "Have you seen 'Babe,' about the talking pig?" Down the hall, bubbles did the trick for Khaniyah Miller, 4.

It isn't always easy to break the ice, and one of the guidelines is to let patients call the shots, because they have so little control over what else is happening to them.

Bell remembers one child who for three months told him to "go away" as soon as he appeared at her door. Then one evening, he sang "Old McDonald." From then until the child went home, the song was the magic password that got him in the door.

So what's the neatest thing for him as a volunteer?

"To see a child smile," Bell said, "or stop crying."

How to Help

Children's Hospital seems to bring out the best in many of us. Hundreds of people volunteer and hundreds have given to this campaign. Take 10-year-old Ashley from Maryland, who recently sent in $13 with a note saying it was money she had collected.

So far, $262,754.99 has been raised, and our goal is $500,000. Please help us meet it.

You can write a check or money order payable to Children's Hospital and send it to Washington Post Campaign: P.O. Box 17390, Baltimore, Md. 21297-1390.

To donate online, using a credit card, visit http://www.washingtonpost.com/childrenshospital.

To contribute by phone using Visa or MasterCard, call 202-334-5100 and follow the instructions. Gifts are tax deductible, as allowed by law.

Thank you!

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