Marian Regional Medical Center volunteers work with visitors, staff, and patients to alleviate stress and give back to their community
BY TAYLOR O’CONNOR
When Caroline Woods found out her father was diagnosed with cancer, she discovered she wanted to help people in similar situations.
“I was with my mother, out of town, in a hospital where my father was diagnosed with lung cancer. We were terrified and we were kind of lost; it was a big city hospital. … I wanted to help people find all sorts of things they needed to know, but don’t ask a nurse or a doctor those questions,” Woods said.
Once a Santa Maria school teacher and Orcutt substitute teacher, Woods found a home at Marian Regional Medical Center’s Volunteer Office where she’s been volunteering for the past 30 years, Woods said.
“People all over the hospital would call us to discharge patients, run down to the basement and deliver supplies to nurses’ stations, and we would run paperwork to nurses before a good computer system was put in. This was in the mid ’90s,” she said. “Since COVID we are in limited areas, but doing the same things.”
Volunteers at Marian do everything that doesn’t require a nursing degree, like being there to support visitors and patients, cleaning and restocking nurses’ stations, discharging patients, and conducting temperature checks, Woods said. Her main job is at the outpatient desk, where she and a hospital employee help check in people and help them navigate the hospital.
“People that come in [to the hospital] are nervous or afraid; they are sick coming in for infusions or surgery. They are not doing their best, and if I can get a twinkle in their eye, I feel like I’ve done something,” Woods said. “It boils down to service and giving back.”
Marian offers a wide variety of volunteer opportunities like helping out in the lobby, escorting people to different parts of the hospital, and setting up the baby bassinets, said volunteer coordinator Colleen Twomey.
“Not only do we have adult volunteers during the day, we have volun-teens working in the afternoons and evenings for extended hours in the afternoon and on weekends when the adults don’t normally work,” Twomey said.
Four-legged friends can also volunteer through pet therapy opportunities, she added.
“I cannot tell you how much the staff needs this, just the comfort of a dog. Our handlers take the dogs up and down the hallways, go into our offices, and meet and greet as many people as possible,” Twomey said. “These are people bringing in their own dogs that are trained as pet therapy animals to receive love from the employees and give love back to them.
“Staff will bury their faces in the dog’s hair; that’s what they need. It’s just a little bit of comfort.”
Volunteers are required to be vaccinated against COVID-19, and also required to eventually receive the booster shot once the six-month waiting period is up. Medical exemptions are available, but Twomey said it’s best for everyone to be fully vaccinated to be as safe as possible. Volunteers are also required to wear a mask during their volunteer shift.
For those who want to help but don’t want to take the risk of coming into a hospital, there are volunteer groups that work off-site making crocheted blankets and hats for babies and cancer patients.
“I feel that working in a hospital is maybe one of the safer places to be because everybody is wearing a mask, everybody’s using hand sanitizer, everybody’s wiping down their stations, and employees are highly encouraged to stay home if they are sick,” Twomey said. “We want the volunteers to feel comfortable; we don’t pay them enough to do anything they don’t want to do. We want them in a job that they like doing.”
Right now, Twomey estimates there are about 115 volunteers at the Santa Maria facility and 35 at the Arroyo Grande location, making a total of 150 volunteers. Prior to COVID-19, there were about 350 total. Hospital employees felt a heavier shift in their workload when the pandemic first cut out the volunteer program entirely, she noted.
“I can’t tell you how much the staff relied on the volunteers, from discharging patients, to the baby bundles, and the waiting rooms. There was such an impact when we went from 300 volunteers to none. People were like, “What do we do now?’ It [had] a huge impact on the hospital,” Twomey said.
A lot of volunteers decided to retire because they weren’t comfortable returning, but Twomey hopes the volunteer numbers will increase in the future.
Longtime volunteer Woods returned because she missed working with patients and staff every day.
“You felt like you were needed and couldn’t be there. It was frustrating,” she said. “Colleen made sure we knew the minute that vaccines would be available so we could come down for the vaccination days because she wanted us as much as we wanted to come back.”
Woods hears from retired volunteers who say they miss being a part of Marian, and she said hospitals are a great place to volunteer.
“It’s a little community out here,” she said. “I’ve enjoyed these days when I’m sitting at a desk helping a hospital employee. Employees are wonderful, and people are so grateful when you smile and show them where to go. It just takes away a lot of their anxiety. … I’ll keep doing it until they throw me out.”
Reach Staff Writer Taylor O’Connor at [email protected].
Los Padres Forest Association volunteers follow passion for outdoors to help maintain local backcountry
BY PETER JOHNSON
In the tranquility of the Los Padres National Forest at sunrise, the camp cook wakes up, rolls out of a tent, and starts prepping coffee, breakfast, and bagged lunches.
After fuel and caffeine, a small army of about 20 volunteers is ready to start their day in the vast and wild Los Padres backcountry—a forest that encompasses 1.75 million acres of the Central Coast.
Their mission for the next seven to 10 days is to help restore whatever trail or trails they’ve targeted for that expedition, whether it’s in the Sespe Wilderness of Ventura County or Figueroa Mountain in Santa Barbara County.
“We get tons and tons of work done,” said Bryan Conant, executive director of the Los Padres Forest Association (LPFA), a 33-year-old nonprofit that oversees various volunteer projects in the forest. “It’s usually just trail work, mostly cutting back brush, clearing trees, and redefining the tread on trails.”
These “work vacations,” as they’re called, take place two to four times per year, generate up to 1,000 cumulative hours of volunteer labor, and are the most popular offering for volunteers with the LPFA.
What’s the payoff? A vastly improved Los Padres trail system, a chance to connect with the forest and its stewards, and a huge sense of satisfaction.
“At the end of the day, you get to see what you accomplished as a group, as an individual, as a team. And it’s there,” Conant said. “It’s like wow, earlier today we had to crawl through this, and now we can just walk through it like a normal trail.”
Conant has led his fair share of work vacations—having started with the LPFA in 2005 as a volunteer, before convincing the nonprofit’s board in 2013 to hire its first-ever executive director (“I’m living the dream,” he said).
A man infected with “Los Padres-itis,” as he calls it, Conant just can’t get enough of the forest. The second largest in the state, spanning five counties, Los Padres is so vast and diverse that there’s always something new to discover and fall in love with, he said.
“There are a lot of different flavors,” said Conant, a Santa Barbara County resident. “The Sespe [Wilderness] has its own flavor. It’s got more dramatic mountains but it’s drier. And San Luis has nice rolling grassy hills with oaks and—I love the San Luis backcountry. I’ve just started learning about it in the last five years and I’ve kind fallen in love with it.”
It’s that passion for the forest—and the outdoors in general—that draws volunteers from up and down the Central Coast to contribute to LPFA-led projects. Those volunteers run the spectrum of age, but the most dedicated workers tend to be in their 50s, 60s, and 70s, since they often have more time available, Conant said.
“I think most people in their 30s are having families and are busy with that sort of thing. And then you see them start popping back again in their 40s,” he said.
According to an LPFA 2021 year-end blog post, volunteers donated 23,000 hours of combined time to the forest last year—quite a feat given the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. And their contributions weren’t just on trails. LPFA workers removed graffiti , repaired campgrounds, helped create and distribute educational material to those visiting the Los Padres, and more.
“It’s not just going on a trail and swinging a tool, though that’s what most volunteers do,” Conant said. “We also have volunteers who go out and interact with the public, work with the visitors centers, do cleanups or graffiti removals, install signs, or work with scout groups.”
Conant said that over the years, the LPFA has become more of a partner agency to the U.S. Forest Service, the federal agency that’s in charge of the Los Padres National Forest. The two groups work hand in hand these days.
“We’re in constant contact with them,” he said. “We’ve actually developed a really close relationship with them and have garnered their trust, especially in the last couple years. They are trusting us with a lot more than what we’ve been able to do in the past.”
LPFA’s growing list of responsibilities in the forest range from doing campground renovations, to taking on more advanced projects, like a recent fencing project in SLO County to block motorcyclists from accessing wilderness areas around High Mountain Road, near Lopez Lake.
Given LPFA’s increasing role, Conant said the nonprofit is always looking for new volunteers with niche skills and expertise to help bolster the organization.
“Constantly getting new people with new skills [allows us] to provide more for the Forest Service,” he explained.
One of Conant’s goals for 2022 and beyond is to pursue more forest projects in the SLO County region of the Los Padres—whether in the Santa Lucia mountain range or on the Big Sur coast.
“Most of our volunteer projects are based in Santa Barbara and Ventura, but we are starting to branch out into San Luis,” Conant said. “We have a couple of volunteers who are interested in starting to lead more regular volunteer projects out there.”
Conant noted that there are fewer Los Padres-centered volunteer groups in SLO County.
“San Luis has CCCMB [Central Coast Concerned Mountain Bikers], which is a very good organization for mountain bikes, but there’s not a whole lot of people caring for the wilderness areas,” Conant said. “Fortunately for San Luis, there hasn’t been a whole lot of fires in the backcountry, and fires are what really cause trail damage. It sparks this mad regrowth in the trail and all of a sudden those trails get completely overgrown again. In San Luis, the trails are in generally pretty good shape compared to a lot of the other parts of the forest, but we’re really looking forward to developing more frequent volunteer work there.”
Whatever projects LPFA takes on in the future—from 10-day work vacations in the backcountry, to short, weekend day trips—its success will depend on maintaining a base of dedicated, passionate volunteers.
“Volunteers are the lifeblood,” Conant said. “They are the heart; they are the soul; they are everything.”
Assistant Editor Peter Johnson can be reached at [email protected].