Published by The Monterey Herald  | April 18, 2021

Provided photo of Connie Sapien

Back in 2006, Connie Sapien faced open-heart surgery by recalling the inspirational words written by German-born diarist Anne Frank.“If God lets me live … I shall not remain insignificant. I shall work in the world and for mankind.” Frank fell victim to the Holocaust, but through her posthumous book “The Diary of Anne Frank,” she inspired countless others — including Sapien.

The Salinas resident made it through her surgery, but a subsequent stroke left her left hand partially paralysed. That forced her to give up her love of cutting hair as owner-stylist at Hair Unlimited.

Then came her mother’s terminal cancer diagnosis. Wanting her to spend her final days at home, Sapien turned to VNA & Hospice.

“I saw how great the nurses were at providing services we couldn’t provide,” she said.

Remembering her promise “to do whatever I could to make a bit of difference,” Sapien began to volunteer at VNA.

Sapien had not cut hair since her retirement. “I wanted to try, but found it challenging because some of the patients could not get out of bed,” she said.

She worked with VNA nurses and caregivers to effectively prop up the patients into a sitting position, allowing her to work around her partial paralysis.

“I could continue to use my talent, also socializing with patients and their caregivers,” she said. “I love making people feel good, by looking good. That is the best medicine.”

Volunteering is the heart of VNA

A dedicated team of volunteers helps VNA & Hospice maintain its mission — to provide care in an ethical, effective, compassionate and fiscally responsible manner.

During National Volunteer Week (April 18-24) and all year long, VNA salutes its volunteers for making an invaluable difference in the lives of patients and their loved ones.

But ask any VNA volunteer and they will report huge physical and emotional rewards.

“What I always hear from volunteers is the connection they make with families,” said VNA volunteer coordinator Quinn Junghans. “The giving comes easy and they come away feeling like they received all the companionship and comfort.”

Studies show that volunteering can improve mental and physical health. A selfless act of giving can reduce stress, combat depression and provide a sense of purpose.

To be eligible for hospice, a patient must be diagnosed with a life-limiting condition with a prognosis of six months or less. Junghans says that’s not always the case.

“Sometimes it becomes a year or more, and a lot of the volunteers become almost members of the family,” she said. “They’ve been sitting there every week for a few hours. They create a bond with the patients, but they become a respite for family members, too. For a lot of them it’s a 24-hour job.”

When Junghans first speaks with families about the possibility of having a volunteer companion, they often politely decline.

“When I tell them about our program and let them know we have a wonderful group of fully vetted volunteers, and that they can have a nap, take a shower, leave the house to see a friend, or sit in the sunshine, I can almost hear the sigh of relief.”

Many talents, skills welcome

Bringing comfort or even distraction to a patient is immensely rewarding. A volunteer can listen, read aloud, hold a hand, keep vigil, do light housekeeping, run errands, or just brush someone’s hair.

“The connection, sharing personal stories, even with someone who is not awake, fills your soul with goodness,” Junghans said. “It’s a profound person-to-person experience that can change your life.”

From the initial phone call and in-person interview, VNA works with prospective volunteers to find the right fit. VNA provides an orientation and team training, where volunteers can learn more about hospice, the interdisciplinary team, and how to work with patients.

Volunteers are drawn from every age group and background. The only qualification is a real desire to make difference in the lives of their neighbors.

Visiting Volunteers provide direct, non-medical support services to palliative and hospice patients and their families. Office Volunteers provide skills and abilities that can be utilized in an office setting. Pet Therapy Volunteers provide companionship and enhance the quality of life for hospice patients through visits with certified pets. Therapy Volunteers, like Sapien, provide services and support through giving haircuts, massages or playing music.

VNA honors its own

VNA first began providing comprehensive and compassionate services back in 1951.

This year VNA & Hospice celebrates 70 years of providing the highest quality health care to residents of the Central Coast.

In light of that milestone, VNA has announced plans to honor and celebrate its employees and volunteers, and create a special fundraising Movie Night on June 26 at Monterey County Fairgrounds.

The VNA family and supporters will gather at the fairgrounds from 5-7 p.m., for a drive-in style experience, including food trucks and beverages.

For more information on VNA, visit www.ccvna.com. Those seeking volunteer opportunities with VNA should reach out to Junghans at (831) 751-5500, or email volunteer@ccvna.com.