KHSC volunteer auxiliary groups weather COVID-19: “We will not fold.”

News / General

Wrapping up National Volunteer Week with a nod to a special group of volunteers

This week, we honour our volunteers across Kingston Health Sciences Centre (KHSC) as they celebrate National Volunteer Week during a year like no other.

Many volunteers have opted for a leave of absence while staying deeply committed to KHSC, while others have remained active on and off site.  And two behind-the-scenes groups—the volunteers who raise hundreds of thousands of dollars every year in support of patient care—have rallied like never before. 

Both groups—Volunteer Services to Hotel Dieu Hospital and the Kingston General Hospital Auxiliary—have been forced into new territory by the pandemic.  For Joanne Bombard, President of Volunteer Services to HDH, the toughest challenge was the closure of the gift shop in the HDH main lobby in March 2020.

Temporarily shutting services as "the right thing to do"

“Our revenues dropped because 70 per cent of our business comes from patients and families, and we pick up the rest from staff and people coming in off the street,” she says. “But that traffic wasn’t safe or supportable with COVID-19 screening stations set up in the lobby.  Closing was hard but clearly the right thing to do.”

While the KGH Auxiliary juggled opening hours at its gift shop, it scrambled to find ways to keep going when lockdowns barred in-person shopping, says Acting President Sandy Thomas.  A gift bag service with telephone ordering and same-day service to inpatient units was introduced, along with the Auxiliary’s first-ever online Gift Shop, still a work in progress but a smart move these days as more people shift to online shopping.

The volunteer-run cafes also had to digest pandemic-related challenges such as restricted seating, physical distancing and contact tracing measures.  HDH’s Brockview Café reduced staff and suspended catering services but otherwise remains open.  Bombard has nothing but praise for staff that have taken the rollercoaster ride in food services in stride, even pulling off the Café’s ever-popular Christmas (takeout) lunch in December.

Ditto for the Auxiliary Café at KGH.  “It operates in a smaller footprint these days but still doing reasonably well,” says Thomas, “and it will help us to meet our fundraising commitments this year.”  Also helping the bottom line are proceeds from the Auxiliary’s 2020 Teddy Bear Campaign, where volunteers moved quickly last fall to implement contact-free options for donating when in-person campaign events had to be suspended.

Getting up to speed on new technology

And members of the KGH Auxiliary and Volunteer Services to HDH had to get on board with new technology to stay in touch.  Like all of us, the volunteers have worked to iron out the kinks of Zoom meetings, although Thomas admits that sometimes connecting virtually or by phone “is just not the same.”

“Serving on the Auxiliary is an important and rewarding part of our members’ lives, so they’re anxious to get back and personally connect with one another.  I think they sometimes feel a bit lost as sea.

“At the same time, they’ve shown great resilience in the face of shutting down some services partially or completely.  We’ve all been on a steep learning curve.  Many of us were here for SARS, but the changes we made back then weren’t as lengthy or severe as now. COVID-19 is a different and wily virus.”

In the face of directives and restrictions, continuity is what matters for these two volunteer groups, which is why they create workarounds, meet regularly, publish newsletters and lean on each other for support.

“Regardless of what’s going on in the great wide world, we’re continuing,” says Bombard.  “We will not fold.”