BY TRONE DOWD
Part of what keeps the wheels turning at St. Mary’s Healthcare System for Children is the selfless individuals who donate their time to the one-of-a-kind institution.
Many people likely do not know that St. Mary’s covers a significant portion of the expenses tied to child care. For this reason, donations and volunteer work go a long way toward helping the hospital reach its goals. To become a volunteer, one must go through a brief screening regarding abilities. Candidates are interviewed, trained and evaluated. Through this process, St. Mary’s experts find the perfect role for those looking to do their part.
According to St. Mary’s website, there is a variety of positions available, so nearly anyone can join the team. Volunteers can work directly with the children in fun activities, education and tutoring, or simple one-on-one friendly interactions.
Volunteer roles include that of the “friendly visitor,” who is someone who holds young babies and toddlers and provides the sense of touch and interaction that often gets lost on the youngsters, who spend long periods of time away from home.
In St. Mary’s doula program, volunteers provide emotional support and comfort to both the children and their families during their stay at the life-care facility.
Rehabilitation helpers act as a pleasant distraction for the young patients. In a world where procedures and doctors’ visits are an everyday occurrence, doing one’s part in helping a child forget those woes is a big part of St. Mary’s goal to provide comfort and normalcy to the lives of these extraordinary children.
Lastly, recreation assistants play with children and work to entertain them during their stay.
In addition to working with the kids, volunteers can assist with the business side of the hospital. Whether it’s in the patient units, office or other various assignments, there is always clerical work to be done.
Those looking to get school credit as they help St. Mary’s can do so fairly easily. Volunteers can start as young as 14 years of age and fulfill their community-service requirements for high school.
The Queens Tribune had a chance to speak with Catherine Manzione, a Bayside business owner who has been volunteering at St. Mary’s since 2016. Manzione told the Queens Tribune that being a part of the children’s hospital has “changed her life.” The 27-year-old said that she has spent most of her life living down the block from St. Mary’s. As a result, the work being done at St. Mary’s has always been in the back of her mind.
“Being so close to the hospital, it has always been a part of my life,” she said. “I’ve donated a present to the kids there every Christmas since I was in seventh grade. But considering that it’s right in our backyard, not a lot of people know about it.”
For years, Manzione said that she constantly thought about helping out at St. Mary’s in any way that she could, but didn’t know how to go about doing so. From the outside looking in, she knew that working with the kids of St. Mary’s would be something special. It wasn’t until last year that Manzione built up the courage to walk in and start asking the necessary questions. She said she went into St. Mary’s thinking that she’d finally get the volunteer experience for which she was looking, but ended up discovering so much more.
“When I started volunteering there, I would hang out with the kids maybe once or twice a week,” she said. “I immediately fell in love with the place. They do so much for not only the kids there, but their families. And the staff? Incredible. They are some of the most amazing, selfless people I have met in my life. They do everything in their power to make the kids comfortable, the families comfortable.
They have an amazing music program, art programs, feeding classes. It’s mind-blowing.”
Manzione said that seeing this kind of engagement firsthand was inspiring to her. After just a few weeks volunteering her spare time, her drive to help grew larger.
Teaming up with Victoria Falcone, St. Mary’s manager of strategic partnerships, Manzione decided to take up volunteer work. Working alongside staff, she organized her first fundraiser event at Bayside’s Bourbon Street in October 2016.
“I thought to myself, ‘We have such an amazing place right here in our backyard. Let’s get the word out,’” she said.
The first event got the ball rolling. Manzione would team up with the St. Mary’s staff once more before the year was over for the annual “Hearts for the Holidays” Christmas fundraiser. She would also assist in the planning of the annual walk fundraiser held every spring.
In 2017, Manzione used her connection as a business owner to help bring in additional donations for the hospital.
“When we did the walk earlier this year, I tried to get the people who I work with to donate and sell sponsorships,” she said.
Manzione said that one of the main aspects of St. Mary’s that keep her going is the children.
They have such big personalities and huge hearts,” she said. “When you really think about it, these are kids living at a hospital. They don’t get to come home or see their families every day. But these kids are filled with so much light. I used to have bad days, but walking in there would take my breath away.”
Manzione said that St. Mary’s is more than just a center for child care.
“I don’t even like to call it a hospital because, to me, it’s not,” she said. “Hospitals don’t make you think of a place where you find comfort. Lots of people are wary towards hospitals. It’s a home for these kids.”
She said that her entire experience with St. Mary’s has impacted her life in every way.
“It has completely changed my life for the better,” she said. “It’s so hard for me, sometimes, to put working with St. Mary’s into words because it’s more of a feeling.”