Ruth-Jean “R-J” Gilbert
This month, R-J Gilbert will be awarded her 50-year service pin as a volunteer at TWH and she has no plans to stop supporting the hospital. (Photo: UHN)

The history of volunteering at Toronto Western Hospital (TWH) is as old as the place itself.

In 1897, the wives of TWH's 12 founding doctors established the Ladies' Board, the precursor for what UHN now knows as Volunteer Resources.

But long before volunteering became a passion and hobby among the public, its main champions and organizers were the wives from families in the surrounding community – and in 1967, TWH came to know a woman who would become one of its longest-serving champions.

This month, Ruth-Jean "R-J" Gilbert, celebrates 50 years of volunteer service at TWH.

But before her story with the hospital began, she was a newlywed who didn't yet have children and was looking for something to do.

A good friend who was married to a TWH physician suggested she apply to what had by then evolved into the Toronto Western Hospital Women's Auxiliary. "They're great and they're always looking for new members," she recalls her friend saying.

After an interview, she became one of the Auxiliary's youngest volunteers and started as a salesperson in the ladies' department of the TWH gift shop. She soon moved on to the role of Accessories Buyer, stocking the gift shop – located at the corner of Dundas and Bathurst – with clothing, purses, scarves etc. The shop's proceeds were donated to TWH to fund various projects.

"It was the only store in the area so it was always busy," says R-J, 79.

R-J not only found her passion with the Auxiliary, she also found a lot of fun. She soon became part of the interwoven fabric of groups that helped TWH provide its many services. She worked in the gift shop until it closed in 1997 and also held several positions in the Auxiliary's administration.

Black and White headshot
In 1978, R-J Gilbert served her first of two terms as President of the Toronto Western Hospital's Auxiliary while also volunteering in TWH's gift shop (Photo: Courtesy R-J Gilbert)

She first became president of the group in 1978, which by then had been renamed the Western Hospital Auxiliary in an effort to expand the volunteer pool to include men. As president, she sat on TWH's board of directors as a representative of the hospital's volunteers. All this while she raised two young children and did some acting in television and radio commercials.

"I really like the connection I have at TWH and volunteering gives me so much," she says. "It's the gratification of giving of yourself while at the same time making someone's day better."

Over the years, hospitals in Toronto started to merge in order to better serve the needs of the patient community. TWH and Toronto General Hospital (TGH) merged in 1986 to form The Toronto Hospital (TTH) but each hospital maintained a separate auxiliary: TTH Auxiliary – Western Division and TTH Auxiliary – General Division.

Volunteering at UHN evolves

But the needs of volunteering were also changing and, what had by then become the University Health Network, soon sought to pool the resources of the separate auxiliaries. The change started with a merger to create The Toronto Hospital Auxiliary in April 1998 but it was dissolved a few months later in September and UHN created the Volunteer Resources department in its place.

R-J, who was then serving a second term as the last President of the Auxiliary's Western Division, wasn't surprised to see things evolve this way.

"Times had changed and there wasn't a future in having an auxiliary run by volunteers," R-J says.  "There were fewer people with disposable time who were available to commit to a long-term volunteer situation and the hospitals had to create something that would be sustainable. 

"It was difficult for many of the volunteers who had been with the Auxiliary a long time, they felt cast aside."

Women in dresses
R-J Gilbert, in red, poses with other volunteers for the annual fashion show held in the hospital's former cafeteria in 1987. By then the Women's Auxiliary had become The Toronto Hospital - Western Division Auxiliary. (Photo: Courtesy R-J GIlbert)

Despite the hiccup, R-J asked to be kept on as a volunteer, enthusiastically taking on the jobs she was given. To this day, she continues to help fundraise for Volunteer Resources through Bake and Book Sales and helps moderate TWH's Patient Education Talks every month.

Though her dedication through volunteering already leaves a lasting legacy, R-J has established an annual UHN neuroscience nursing scholarship.  In 1979, R-J's husband, Humphrey, was diagnosed with a brain tumour and treated at TWH.  He survived the ordeal and has been fine since, retiring from the investment business last year at the age of 86.

To show appreciation for the wonderful treatment he received at the hospital, R-J set up the Gilbert Nursing Scholarship which awards its 10th scholarship later this month.

It has been 50 years of dedication, fun and service for R-J but she has no plans to stop volunteering.

"I'm going to continue as long as they give me a job!" she says laughing. "I've even offered more of my time."

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