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Santa Maria Sun / Cover Story

The following article was posted on January 13th, 2012, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 12, Issue 44 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [] - Volume 12, Issue 44

Willing hearts

More than 400 men, women, and teens volunteer at Marian Medical Center, but the hospital still needs more help


Marian Medical Center is a hub of activity. Groups of people flow in as others stream out. Some are on their way to cheer up a loved one who’s in for a short stay. Others are rushing to greet the latest edition to this world. Still others are there to say their goodbyes.

Jessica Bonilla said her four years as a volunteer in various areas of the hospital have helped her decide she wants to pursue a career in medicine.

All of them are caught in a tangle of emotion that ranges from joy and excitement to worry and anxiety to sadness and grief. As these hospital visitors bustle in and out, criss-crossing against doctors and nurses in the hallways, it might be easy to overlook one special hospital representative: the volunteer.

Despite their brightly colored uniforms, Marian Medical Center volunteers sometimes go unnoticed amid the excitement and emotion of the patients and families in the hospital, but their presence is definitely felt. A glass of water from a volunteer may not seem like a significant action, but it’s definitely a welcome comfort for a thirsty patient confined to a bed. To a family awaiting news of a loved one’s surgery, the information passed along from a compassionate volunteer helps to calm nerves. And a bit of conversation may be overlooked by someone in good health, but it means the world to a lonely extended-care resident.

These are tasks the volunteers perform every day. They lend support to center staff and compassion to patients and family. Their actions make all the difference in helping the hospital meet its standards of excellence.

David Mell has volunteered for three years. It was actually almost a calling for him. When his wife Lucille passed away, Mell’s daughter urged him to get out of the house and keep busy. He went bowling often, but he eventually decided to volunteer. Lucille had been at the Marian Extended Care Center a couple of times, so that’s where he decided to devote his time. Now he knows it was the right decision.

“I met some fantastic people over there,” he said.

Mell is known for his devotion to his volunteerism and for having a big heart. His day often consists of helping residents in wheelchairs spend time outdoors or helping them on days when they go on outings.

“All the ladies usually want to go to Wal-Mart,” he said.

But many times, he’s just there to talk to them—and they are just as eager to have someone to listen.

David Mell is known for his devotion to the long-term care residents at Marian Extended Care Center. He’s even made great friends, such as Dene Mackey.

“Sometimes they just want someone to come in and say hello,” Mell explained. “Just talking to someone means so much.”

He’s more than happy to do so, and he’s made many friends. In a place where many patients are in pain or have physical or mental difficulties, he’s amazed at the positive attitudes of the residents he works with—like Marcelo Rodriguez. Mell said meeting Rodriguez has been a highlight of his job: “It’s not often you meet someone who is 108 years old and is so sharp.”

Then there’s Dene Mackey, another long term resident at Marian Extended Care Center.

“She’s just so positive,” Mell said.

While Mell fills his retirement years with his volunteer effort, Jessica Bonilla is beginning her introduction to the medical field. She said she remembers seeing candy stripers when she was a child, and from that point on she knew she wanted to be one. She said that even at such a young age, she had a passion for helping others. Later, she began to take an interest in the medical field. Then she saw an advertisement at school for Marian Medical Center’s Volunteen program: “I was so excited!”

That was four years ago, and Bonilla is still just as excited. Now 17, she said volunteering has helped her get an inside look at the medical industry. She’s worked in various areas within the hospital and currently works in the Emergency Room. She hopes to attend UCLA and become an ophthalmologist or cardiologist, and she credits her volunteerism as providing a look into what the field entails.

“Volunteering and seeing the different aspects of the hospital has really helped me decide what area in the medical industry I want to go into,” she said.

Bonilla said being a volunteer has been rewarding in many ways, most of all in seeing people heal.

“I just love seeing someone’s progress and watching someone get better and seeing their progress and being a part of that,” she said.

Frances Walker is often the source of information for families awaiting on word from a doctor on the status of a loved one’s procedure.

Bonilla said she enjoys the role she plays in brightening someone’s day. She also admitted that often, if she’s having a bad day, she can come into her shift, make a connection with someone, and leave in a much better mood.

“I love bringing a smile to someone’s face, bringing them a glass of water and making them feel comfortable,” she said. “It really makes you feel good.”

Frances Walker worked for the city of Santa Maria, and as she neared retirement, she made plans to volunteer.

She’s volunteered for about a year in the same-day care center, acting as a liaison between families waiting for a loved one in surgery and their doctors. Walker said she enjoys her role of providing much-needed comfort to the family.

“Working with the families and just being able to help the families, the nurses, the surgeons, and comforting the family—I just love everything about it,” Walker said.

At one point, she had to have surgery and stayed at Marian Medical Center for a week. The experience made an impact.

“The professionalism and skill the staff displayed just strengthened my resolve to volunteer,” she explained.

Walker said that even though the families she interacts with are often preoccupied with the well-being of their loved ones, she still gets plenty of recognition for the work she does. She said she doesn’t volunteer for the recognition, though she admitted that there’s never a week that goes by when she doesn’t get at least one hug from someone who appreciates her service. And just as a volunteer’s contribution has a big impact on a patient’s overall visit, so too does that acknowledgment on the heart of a volunteer.

Walker said she also gets inspiration from the volunteers around her: “I like the passion and compassion among the volunteers. It’s something wonderful to work among people with the same heart as you.”

Marian Medical Center volunteers collectively put in approximately 71,000 volunteer hours each year. With the opening of the new hospital, nearly 100 more volunteers will be needed.

Walker said the staff also continues to impress and inspire her with the way they handle patients and families. Time and again she gets to see families anxiously wait while their loved one spends hours in surgery. Then they wait more for news of the results.

“A surgeon can be in a procedure for eight hours and may have had a procedure before that, and he comes out to speak with the family and he’s calm and takes his time,” Walker said. “It’s amazing.”

Of course, it isn’t always easy. Bonilla and Mell both said they’ve witnessed the various stages of life, from birth to death. They’ve watched what happens in the aftermath of the birth of a stillborn baby, and they’ve lost many friends they’ve made along the way. Yet they remain steadfast to their commitment to be there for the staff and families involved.

Stephanie Grogan, Marian Medical Center’s executive director, said it takes a special person to volunteer: “I think providing for the sick is a special calling.”

But it’s one many have heeded.

Marian Medical Center has 300 adult volunteers and 100 Volunteens. Volunteers have dedicated a total of 71,000 hours a year. One of the hospital’s longtime volunteers has contributed 14,000 herself during her tenure.

With the new hospital building opening this year, the center is embarking on a campaign to recruit more volunteers to help with the needs of the hospital, staff, and patients as everyone moves into the new building. Marian Medical Center’s new building will be open March 27, and the hospital will make it easier for locals to volunteer by adding evening and weekend shifts. People can dedicate their time in a variety of capacities, from administrative work to cuddling newborns to helping nurses and doctors with certain tasks. Some volunteer work can also be done at home, Grogan said, like knitting caps for newborns or lap robes for patients. Even some administrative work can be done at home.

“It takes a willing heart to be a volunteer, someone who is willing and able to serve,” Grogan said. “Just as the medical center is growing and changing, so is the volunteer program.”

The executive director said the hospital is looking to expand the number of volunteers by 20 percent: “We are looking for 100 more willing hearts.”

Sign yourself up
To become a volunteer at Marian Medical Center, call 739-3520 or visit

Until now, volunteers’ shifts generally ran a minimum of four hours during the weekdays. Newly added shifts can be two to three hours, depending on department need, and will include evening and weekend shifts. Grogan said the new hours were designed to allow people who work or go to school the opportunity to volunteer.

Volunteers go through an initial screening process and fill out some basic paperwork. Then there’s an interview for assessing a prospective volunteer’s interest and skills. Next is a general orientation, much like the orientation employees go through. Depending on the department, there may be another specific orientation, but overall, Grogan said the process isn’t cumbersome, and volunteers can get started fairly quickly. The orientation also acts as an assessment to help prospective volunteers determine where they’d most like to dedicate their efforts.

Grogan said many of the volunteers are former nurses who have retired and come back to help out in a new capacity.

Whatever the motivation for lending their time, volunteers often get as much out of their volunteerism as the people they help.

“You make this one connection, and it just makes your day,” Bonilla said.

Mell quickly agreed: “I know, I’m going to get back more than I ever give.”

Contact Arts Editor Shelly Cone at

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