By SONIA SCHLESINGER
Retirement. Interest in medicine. Staying active. The kids—always, the kids. These are just a few of the reasons that the diverse range of volunteers at La Rabida Children’s Hospital, 6501 S Promontory Dr., keep coming back, week after week, year after year. Whether they work at the information desk, the literacy table, or the acute care center, they say the place energizes them and that the staff inspire them.
The hospital itself was founded in 1896, first residing in one of Chicago’s few remaining buildings from the Columbian Exposition three years earlier—it had housed the Spanish exhibit and was named La Rabida in honor of the monastery from which the exposition’s namesake had planned his trip and sailed. Like nearly all of the other World’s Fair buildings, it eventually burned down. Then it served as a “hospital without walls,” taking in children from the inner city. In the 1930s the building was restored.
Today, the building, overlooking Lake Michigan, is new and boat-themed, with the staff deemed as “crew” and children “passengers,” but the mission has stayed the same: to provide inpatient and outpatient treatment for inner-city and suburban children with chronic illness, developmental disabilities, and a history of abuse. The hospital is 90 percent Medicaid-dependent and has a 49-bed inpatient unit for children with a much larger outpatient population. It provides care to 9,000 children ages 0-18. Multiple staff-members say that its small size is part of what makes it special, they often use terms such as “we’re like family” and “we are all a team.”
Many people working at the hospital emphasize that volunteers are very much a part of that team.
“These children, they need interaction and love and without our volunteers I don’t think we would ever be able to do that,” said Director of Nursing Sylvia Williams. “They fill in the gaps where we can’t as far as nursing staff and to see them holding a child, reading them a book…even singing helps the kids thrive and grow. I love them…they are very dear to my heart because they are part of my team.”
The “team” can mean several different things. Volunteers work by department: they can work at the information desk, the nursing unit, the literacy and tutoring programs, child life, or the acute care clinic. Their application process includes a written portion and an interview.
Like the patients, the volunteers’ ages range widely, from high school students aged 16 and up to retirees. Judi Blakemore, Manager of Volunteer Services, requires that students volunteer 40 hours over 20 weeks, while adult volunteers commit to at least a year of work for 2-3 hours per week.
The volunteers often don’t stop there. Many have been returning for years, some even more than a decade.
Kate Forrester has been volunteering at La Rabida for 17 years. Most recently she has been working closely with the hospital’s rehabilitation staff in providing group therapy for certain patients.
Forrester, whom Blakemore calls “awesome and totally dedicated,” was once a preschool teacher and loves children.
“Here I can see the children grow and change and they sometimes come to me for comfort,” she said. “I feel like I’m accomplishing something.”
She added that keeping herself from taking over in certain situations can be challenging.
“I want to put my thoughts into things and that’s not why I’m here,” she said. “I come up from the South side and every week I run into traffic jams, but when I come I always think ‘heck I have to come back next week,’” she explained.
Yvonne Whaley, who started volunteering at La Rabida after retiring from a job with the federal government, has been impressed by the staff and mission of the hospital.
“I have a good rapport with the staff; they are all caring,” she said. “They are really, really committed to helping the children get better, and that’s the main thing.”
Younger volunteers, often within the age range of the patients themselves, enjoy the work as well.
Before beginning work at La Rabida, Andrea Hernandez, a high school junior from Hammond, Ind., wanted to work at a children’s hospital for years, and is grateful to finally have the chance.
She echoes the sentiments of several other volunteers in considering the role it has played in her life.
“I love children and I love kids…the best part is knowing I get to be there and take their minds off what’s going on in the hospital,” She said. “I feel like it’s the best thing I’ve spent time doing, the most worthwhile.”