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Photo courtesy of Renee Ostergren​​​

For the past 20 years, ​​​retired school teacher Irene Wickland has been more than a volunteer to families with children who have cancer—she has been a source of comfort, a relief for parents so worried they can’t break away from their child’s bedside.

Wickland, 73, is part of Care Partners, a volunteer program at the University of Minnesota Amplatz Children’s Hospital, in Minneapolis. She joined the program after retiring in 1991, passionate about continuing her work with children in a new role: assisting critically ill young people and their families.

Wickland runs errands for the families and acts as a sounding board when they want to talk about their pain and grief. Other times, her goal is to encourage a caregiver to simply go for a walk. “Those mommas don’t want to leave those babies for five minutes, so it’s hard to get them away,” she says.

Although some hospital volunteer programs require as little as two to three hours per week, Care Partners asks volunteers like Wickland to commit at least 120 days per assignment, due to the serious illnesses faced by the families being served, says Alex Thwaites, Care Partners’ program coordinator.

“A family volunteer will stay with them throughout their entire course of treatment, perhaps providing transportation, particular food items … or [helping] with laundry,” says Thwaites. “Also, that family volunteer will hopefully become a friend to them who is not a medical person, who they can trust.”

Become a Hospital Volunteer

A wide range of volunteer activities are available.

If you’d like to join your local hospital’s or cancer center’s volunteer program, a wide range of opportunities may be available. Many hospital websites have a page dedicated to volunteer opportunities, which can range from simply spending time with patients to serving as a family adviser. You can fill out an online application, email the volunteer coordinator, or call the number listed on the website for more information.

​Most hospitals ask volunteers for a minimum of two to four hours per week. No specific skills are needed, but you may be asked to complete position-specific training. Most hospitals perform criminal background checks and ask for references. You will have to be tested for tuberculosis and provide proof of your immunizations.

If you live in a rural area, you may have difficulty finding opportunities to volunteer with cancer patients. One option is contacting large hospital systems, such as the Appalachian Regional Healthcare System, which runs three hospitals in rural North Carolina. You can also contact the American Cancer Society, which will connect volunteers with opportunities in local communities in both rural and urban areas.​

Here are some volunteer activities to try:

  • Reading or playing music for patients
  • Helping patients use art and music to cope with illness
  • Editing patients' creative writing projects
  • Staffing gift shops or other retail stores
  • Giving tours to visitors
  • Handling dogs as they interact with patients (requires certification)
  • Offering support to patients without family at the end of their lives
  • Helping newly diagnosed patients cope with their cancer diagnoses and treatments
  • Providing spiritual care and support​

​To one single mother last year, Wickland was the only support system during her daughter’s nine months of cancer treatment and death. “The mother, she was older, the daughter was in her late teens, and they were attached at the hip,” Wickland says. “I became as worried for the mother as I did for the patient, because she was absolutely devastated.”

Watching children suffer has been difficult for Wickland, but the gratification she gets from helping families in need has kept her in the program all these years. She plans to continue volunteering “as long as I can, as long as I feel like I’m contributing.” ​​​

Do you know an extraordinary person who’s​ giving his or her time to the cancer cause?​
Email Volunteer@CancerTodayMag.org​. We may feature the person in a future issue​.​