Chloe Gao
Years of volunteering at Toronto Western Hospital helped Chloe Gao decide on pursuing a career in clinical nutrition. (Photo: Courtesy Chloe Gao)

The reasons to volunteer are as varied as the people who spend time doing it. Whether it's a hobby, a passion, an opportunity to network or a way to build experience in a particular field, the volunteers at UHN provide a valuable service that supports all its sites in different ways.

And, though volunteering is thought of as a way to give back, in many cases, the volunteers receive just as much.

Such is the case for Jenn Lee and Chloe Gao, who are studying nutrition at Ryerson University and volunteering with the Clinical Nutrition team at Toronto Western Hospital (TW). Both of them want to pursue a career in clinical dietetics and were advised to get volunteer experience in the field.

"It's been really eye-opening to be in a setting that is so similar to my future work environment," says Jenn, who has been volunteering for more than a year. "I see how dieticians work in a clinical setting, get to work on my own projects and can really picture what my life can be."

That is exactly the experience Debra MacGarvie wants her volunteers to walk away with. A registered dietitian with the Clinical Nutrition team, Debra has been overseeing and mentoring the program's volunteers for 10 years.


Jenn Lee
Just like Chloe Gao, volunteer Jenn Lee has been getting valuable on the job experience thanks to TW’s Clinical Nutrition team. (Photo: Courtesy Chloe Gao)

"When Volunteer Resources at Toronto Western Hospital identifies volunteers for us, I know that the volunteers want references, often to move forward, to apply for further education such as a Masters program for example," Debra says. "It is difficult to provide references when you know someone for a short period of time.

"That's why I ask volunteers to make a commitment for a couple of years. That way everyone has a more meaningful experience and we can really grow a relationship."

Volunteer responsibilities are varied and hands on

The clinical dietetics team takes on a small number of volunteers per year, and Debra shapes their involvement to empower the volunteers, ensure they are well integrated in the work the group does across the hospital, and provide an experience that allows them to find out if this is really what they want to do for a career.

Responsibilities are varied and hands on. Volunteers shadow dietitians to really see the work in action and even accompany them on rounds to get a sense of how the inter-disciplinary team works together on different in-patient units.

They also work independently on parts of on-going projects. Jenn helped develop recipes for patients in the Epilepsy Clinic who transition to a strict, low carb/high fat diet to help manage their seizures. The change can be a difficult one, and dietitians work on providing recipes that adhere to the diet but still allow patients to make foods to celebrate the holidays.

"Debra is very helpful and nurturing, she really wants the volunteers to grow," says Jenn. "She's very interactive and explains what she is doing and why, rather then just doing the task and having the volunteer observe."

National Volunteer Week
April 15 – 21, 2018

Everyone is invited to take some time to recognize the volunteers in UHN departments, clinics, units, waiting rooms and at information desks.

Jenn, who graduates from Ryerson this spring, was accepted to the University of Toronto's Master's program in Public Health, Dietetics and Nutrition thanks, in part, to the experience, coaching and support from volunteering. But the experience also helped her on a personal level.

"The death of my grandmother a few years ago made me anxious about being in a hospital," she says.  "But my volunteer experience and working with patients in the Critical Care Unit helped change how I feel about it."

For Chloe, her volunteer experience helped her choose what she wanted to do for a career. A volunteer in departments across TW since high school, the hospital setting and interactions with patients made her even more determined to become a clinical dietitian. Her current work with Debra's team, has allowed her to see what the classroom theory looks like in practice.

"I learned more about the process of dietary counselling, patients' needs, effective ways to interact with patients, and many other things that I could never grasp from studying at school alone," she says.

This passion and feedback from volunteers is why Debra invests so much time and effort into integrating them with her team.

"The volunteers inspire us," Debra says. "Mentoring and coaching is really rewarding and the volunteers are the future of the profession. "When it comes together for them, it's a real feel-good moment."


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