La Rabida volunteers enrich the lives of young patients

Herald Intern

An animal researcher, a retired teacher, and a college senior: when hearing these titles it’s easy to assume they won’t have much in common. But there are three people matching these descriptions that have one major thing in common: they’re all volunteers at La Rabida Children’s Hospital, 6501 S. Promontory Dr.

On Christina Olivares’ first day as a volunteer five years ago, she was filled with excitement and nerves. Her sister works as a nurse at La Rabida and she had been looking to volunteer somewhere that “was dedicated to its community and helping people,” La Rabida gave her even more than she had asked for.

“I started out as a volunteer tutor so the first day was both exciting and nerve-wracking because you always wonder just how much you remember from all the skills you learned in school,” 37-year-old Olivares said. “And there were times that I felt like I was the one who needed tutoring.”

For her day job, Olivares works for the University of Chicago and has for over 12 years conducted animal research with mice. At La Rabida, her responsibilities are vastly different. She handles the clothing donation program and makes sure that all the clothing items that get donated are clean, folded, and sorted by sizes so the nurses can easily find what they need for the kids.

On the opposite end of the UChicago spectrum is 21-year-old volunteer Dagny Vaughn, who is entering her senior year as a pre-med student and works in a research lab and as a coffee shop barista. She began volunteering with the hospital as an Acute Care Clinic volunteer and an S.S. La Rabida inpatient unit volunteer this July.

“I think it’s incredibly easy to become consumed by the rigor of classes and often stressful nature of pre-med life, so much so that it can be easy to lose touch with exactly what you are working for and what it means,” Vaughn said. “When I volunteer, I am constantly reminded of the responsibility of working in medicine and the realities of it, the joys and the hardships, something that is so important to keep in mind.”

La Rabida’s mission is to provide care to children who have lifelong medical conditions regardless of their family’s financial status or ability to pay. According to La Rabida’s website, its hospital opened in 1896 and was “borne of the generosity of the government of Spain and a group of dedicated volunteers, a legacy that continues to the present day.”

Today they serve around 7,500 children every year and require primary care to help patients with challenging conditions like asthma, sickle cell disease, and development disabilities.

Volunteer program manager Adam Spencer said that without the volunteers, all of these duties could not be fulfilled.

“They’re able to spend that kind of extra quality time with the children that the clinical staff oftentimes can’t because they have all kinds of patients that they have to work with and when they’re working with the patients they’re doing the medical stuff and that’s their job,” Spencer says. “The real focus of the job of the volunteer is just to spend time with the kids, being a loving compassionate presence, having fun with the kids, playing games, reading books, singing songs, and that’s the thing that the volunteers do that the rest of our staff really appreciates.”

Deborah Guzman, a retired teacher, has been a literary volunteer for a little over two years and has always had a soft spot for children.

She is grateful for all the interactions she gets to have with the children, even the ones who can be difficult.

“There was one boy, he was there for the longest and he was a handful and sometimes people found him difficult to deal with. You would read to him and you would have to make sure you gave him the books that had hard pages that can’t tear because he would tear the pages. He wasn’t being mean, he was just active. We used to go back and forth but we had a good time. He would always smile when he saw me coming,” Guzman says. “You get somewhat attached, but you don’t want to get attached because hopefully their stay isn’t that long.”

Being a volunteer isn’t always easy as the volunteers often have to see the children in physical and emotional pain, but the volunteers value the connection they have with the children and enjoy seeing them they light up when they enter a room.

“These connections are very important to me, especially as an undergrad student in a place where it is easy to live in a ‘university bubble’ and forget that there is an entire world of people outside of it,” Vaughn says. “I recently got to assist a physical therapist for a patient I had been visiting. It was really cool to help the child better learn to crawl and start to stand. He was so excited and we had a lot of fun.”

From her time volunteering, Olivares has learned a lot about the way she views the world, and the saying “ All you can take with you is that which you have given away” has stuck with her.

“There is no material possession or amount of money that can ever give me a better feeling than the feeling of helping someone in need,” Olivares says.  “Volunteering changes the world and makes it a better place. We need that right now more than anything.”

Spencer mainly performs administrative duties for the program and rarely gets to see the volunteers doing their work, but after seeing them at work when an NBC crew came to film one of their programs, he walked away feeling grateful.

“I got to watch the volunteers holding these babies and playing with them and it made me realize that all this office work that I do is so that they can be of service to these kids,” Spencer says. “It made me really grateful that this is what I get to do as a job, supporting these amazingly generous people enriching the lives of these kids.”

La Rabida is always looking for more volunteers of all ages and from all walks of life. For more information visit