When Shellie Brown, volunteer coordinator for Hospice of the Bluegrass in Frankfort, recently heard that a patient needed hot meals, she emailed her team for help.
The response from the volunteers was quick and overwhelming, she says, with numerous offers of casseroles and homemade soups. Sometimes it’s those simple gestures that move her the most.
“It’s not really a job – it’s more like an adventure because you just have new learning experiences every single day, and it’s fun,” she said, sitting in her Frankfort office.
“Every day I’m either crying or laughing, it’s joyous or it’s sad.”
Shellie, a Frankfort native, is responsible for the overall direction of the volunteer program for Franklin, Anderson, Woodford and Owen counties. She provides training, support and supervision for 110 volunteers in the four-county region.
Hospice volunteers in the region provided about 5,000 hours of service in the last fiscal year, saving the organization about $100,000.
Shellie places volunteers where they are needed most, advocates on their behalf, recognizes their hard work, provides ongoing education and recruits new volunteers.
“The volunteers run this program – they really do,” she said. “All I have to do is pick up the phone and ask, and they’re there.”
Hospice’s biggest need is for volunteers who can provide respite, sitting with terminally ill patients while their caregivers run errands or take a much-needed break. The organization serves about 120 patients in the four-county region, Shellie said.
Volunteers also provide basic companionship for nursing home patients – shopping, cleaning and cooking for them. Some help survivors as they grieve the loss of a family member, or sit with dying patients in their final moments.
Not everyone is comfortable working with patients, Shellie says, but they can still help the organization by doing administrative tasks or yard work. Others serve on the board, plan events or speak to the community about the organization.
“Usually we can find a place for you if you want to volunteer,” Shellie said.
Some volunteers have been with the organization for as long as 20 years, she said, but the average stay is about two years. Most are retired and over the age of 60, but some state workers also make time to help in the evenings, Shellie said.
The volunteers have a support group that meets monthly, and Shellie said those with experience are quick to guide new helpers through their nerves.
“They are the most selfless, compassionate people I have ever been around – they teach me something every day,” Shellie said of the volunteers she oversees.
“They teach me who I want to be, and they remind me every day why we’re here.”
Shellie, a Frankfort native and 1990 graduate of Western Hills High School, did billing for a home health agency before joining Hospice in 2004 to work in medical records.
Two years later, she took her current position as volunteer coordinator and said she “couldn’t be happier anywhere else.” She only half jokes that she would do the work even without a paycheck.
Shellie plans Hospice events, speaks publicly about the organization and attends health fairs in the area.
She also volunteers for shifts with what’s known as the 11th Hour service for people who are expected to die within a few days and don’t have family or friends who can be with them.
The first time she worked an 11th Hour shift, Shellie sat with an elderly woman whose husband was in a nursing home, too sick to travel to her bedside.
As Shellie arrived at the woman’s hospital room, the volunteer whose shift was ending whispered in her ear that Shellie should slip her hand into the dying woman’s hand immediately – otherwise she would wake up worrying that she was alone.
“It hit me then, what if she dies while I’m here with her?” she said, remembering the moment.
“I sat there with her, and every now and then she’d look up at me, and the look in her eyes was ‘thank you.’
“She knew she was dying, she knew we were there so she wasn’t alone, and I realized I’m not afraid if she dies – this is an honor, this is such an honor.”
But the woman didn’t die during Shellie’s shift – or even that day. She held on for several days, dying about 15 minutes after her ailing husband made it to the hospital.
Through that experience and other 11th Hour shifts, Shellie said she’s learned that death is a process, just like being born. It’s taught her how to better deal with personal losses, she said, and given her a glimpse of what Hospice volunteers go through.
“(Death) does make people uncomfortable, but it’s about hope, and we want to give hope back to these patients and families,” she said.
“We’re all dying, and we’re all going to die, but sometimes we come in just way too late to give these patients and their families really what they need, and that’s support. It’s that extra support and care and love that people sometimes just don’t get because they think they’re giving up (if they ask for help.)”
Shellie stays busy with her job at Hospice, but she’s also involved with the youth program at Forks of Elkhorn Baptist Church, where she’s been a member for years.
She has a 16-year-old son, Austin, a student at Franklin County High School. Her husband of 21 years, Kenny, works for the state Department for Environmental Protection.
Last year, Shellie earned her bachelor’s degree in health care administration from Midway College at the age of 39.
She worked toward her degree for 10 years and said her Hospice coworkers gave her the encouragement to finish. Besides raising her son, Shellie calls it “the hugest accomplishment” of her life.
“I’ve always wanted to receive my degree, and it was a huge accomplishment for me – it took me 10 years – with a child and being married and trying to work, and I never stopped any of that,” she said.
“This organization is actually the one that pushed me and really encouraged me to (finish), and gave me financial assistance so that I could do that. This organization has really helped me grow, and I owe them a lot for that.”
Students often come through Hospice as they work to earn internship or job shadowing hours. Because of her experience, Shellie said she likes to encourage them to keep going.
“It’s difficult, and it’s hard, but don’t stop,” she said.
Shellie recently received the 2012 Volunteer Management Award through a regional professional organization, the Central Kentucky Association of Volunteer Administrators.
But she’s humble about the recognition – she said Hospice’s volunteers and staff members do the work, she just picks up the phone to bring the right people together.
“It’s just simply rewarding and inspiring, and the other people out there deserve a lot more recognition than I do,” she said.
“I think that all of our volunteers, employees and staff work so hard every day, and when you see that, it makes you want to get up and go to work because you’re all in the same boat, working toward the same mission and goals.”