Hanging on the door of Tobye Karl’s office at Saint Francis Hospital and Medical Center is a sign bearing the Shakespeare quote: “How far that little candle throws his beams! So shines a good deed in a weary world.” Indeed, doing good deeds is part of Karl’s job description. As director of volunteer services, she and her impressive corps of volunteers have had a far-reaching impact on Saint Francis, its staff, and its patients.
During her 23-year tenure as director, Karl has grown the hospital’s volunteer program from about 25 volunteers to more than 650, making it the largest department after nursing. Once the province of older, retired members of the community, volunteerism at Saint Francis has become a diverse enterprise, with volunteers ranging in age from 15 to 96, and working in about 89 different job descriptions.
Karl’s impact on the hospital can be seen everywhere – from the maternity floor (where Read to Grow volunteers deliver new books to every new baby and a message about the importance of reading to every new mother), to the cancer ward, where she dispatches others to offer lunch, conversation, and company to patients undergoing cancer treatment. It can be seen in the waiting rooms, where members of Karl’s staff report to families about the status of a child or parent in surgery, to the food bank at the Burgdorf/Bank of America Health Center (a community clinic for the underserved in Hartford’s North End), where her volunteers serve not only Saint Francis patients but anyone in the community in need.
“Tobye is a hands-on, dedicated director,” says Frances Sethre, a Simsbury resident who volunteers in the outpatient cancer clinic. “She walks the walk, as they say, and doesn’t just talk the talk. She is just so inspiring.”
KEEPING THE CUSTOMERS HAPPY
Karl has worked in the Saint Francis health system for more than 35 years. She started at Mount Sinai Hospital as an auxiliary volunteer in 1981 before moving on to serve as president of the auxiliary and then director of volunteer services.
“That was supposed to be a temporary position, as I had young kids at the time and was reluctant to leave them,” Karl recalls. “I stayed for 24 years.”
When Saint Francis and Mount Sinai merged in 1995, Karl moved to Saint Francis to oversee volunteer services at both institutions.
A journalism major at the University of Iowa, she began her career in public relations, at one time arranging lecture tours for national celebrities around the U.S.
“This is as close as you can get to a real PR job,” Karl notes of her work in volunteer services. “We have to keep all our customers happy, which is what I keep as my guiding principle – we have to keep the patients happy, the staff happy, and the volunteers happy.”
One of Karl’s proudest accomplishments while at Mount Sinai was her “Don’t carry your baby home in your lap” campaign, which led to a program through which car dealers donated car seats to the hospital, which then leased them to new mothers for $10.
“They would get their $10 back when they returned the car seat for the next size up, and we made sure everybody in the hospital knew how to safely use these car seats,” Karl says. “At the time, car accidents were the number one killer of babies. We actually got a law passed through the Connecticut legislature outlawing taking your baby anywhere except in a car seat.”
Karl brought this get-things-done attitude with her to Saint Francis. Last December, when the hospital social workers told Karl about a family visiting the outpatient clinic that was going through difficult times – “more than anything, the mother wanted to be able to have a Christmas tree for her children,” Karl recalls – Karl not only secured a tree, but also decorations and presents for the kids.
“Our department is the place of last resort,” jokes Karl. “When they can’t figure out any other way, they come to us.”
AN ARRAY OF PROGRAMS
Karl has spearheaded many new volunteer programs while at Saint Francis. Her volunteers not only provide food for 1,300 to 1,600 families a month through the food bank at Saint Francis’ Mount Sinai campus, but also diapers, through its diaper bank, and winter coats during the holiday season.
The Mended Hearts, a group of volunteers who have had heart surgery, come to the hospital to offer support and advice to heart patients about to undergo similar procedures. There are fall-risk volunteers, who flag patients who are at high risk of falling, arts volunteers who come in to perform for patients and staff, and “patient representatives” who round on patients, providing companionship and picking up gift shop items, like magazines, for them. One volunteer brought an older patient a laptop, Karl recalls, and taught her how to email her grandchildren. There are even canine volunteers (the four-footed variety) who “bring unconditional love” to patients’ bedsides, she says.
On a recent workday, Karl guided a visitor through a room in which volunteers were sifting through piles and piles of donated books, gently cleaning them to present to the siblings of new babies, as part of the Read to Grow program. She pointed out a storage closet that was overflowing with hundreds of colorful pillows made by the Windsor Women’s Club and donated for use by Saint Francis patients. Karl explains that patients hold the pillows against their surgical area when they cough to help lessen the pain. The storage closet shelves were also filled with boxes of pink, blue and white baby layettes – hand-knit blankets, hats and mittens – to be gifted to new mothers in the maternity ward.
“The biggest problem,” notes Karen Murray, one of the volunteers, “is finding a place to store all the wonderful things people donate.”
Like a doting parent, Karl says she doesn’t have any favorite volunteer program.
“I get delight in them all, frankly,” she says. “Whatever project or problem I’m working on now is the one getting my special attention.”
The challenge, she says, is finding meaningful jobs that challenge the volunteers and use their wide range of expertise. She says she has several elementary school teachers, and even a principal, who participate in the Read to Grow program; energetic high school students who serve as mobility volunteers and “use their charm to get patients out of their beds and walking”; Hartt School and Classical Magnet School students who bring music into the hospital halls; and prospective physician assistant and medical students who help out in the hospital, while at the same time getting a preview of their intended careers.
Karl personally interviews every adult volunteer applicant (her assistants interview college and high school students) to match each one to the appropriate position.
Often, there is just a natural fit. Frances Sethre, for example, started volunteering in the cancer center after her husband, who had been treated there, succumbed to his illness.
“Even though the cancer took him eventually, my experience there was nothing but wonderful,” she recalls. Sethre brings lunch or coffee to patients at the day center, and keeps them company while they receive chemotherapy. “It’s the most rewarding thing I’ve done in my life. I feel that it’s actually a privilege to do it.”
An especially rewarding volunteer experience, she says, occurred when a patient she had befriended, who was in the last stages of her life, told her, “It takes a village to take care of a cancer patient – and you’re part of that village.”
“To this day, I will never forget those words,” she says. “At that moment, I realized that you do make an impact.” Sethre was, in fact, instrumental in getting that particular patient’s husband, who himself was recovering from heart surgery and unable to drive, to the hospital to see his wife before she died.
“THE BEST JOB IN THE HOSPITAL”
Karl says she tries to be aware of the needs of the institution, and challenges herself to figure out how volunteers can best meet those needs.
“That’s the challenge I love the most, when I can creatively figure out ways to solve problems, especially when it may never have occurred to staff that there could be a volunteer solution.”
Karl’s only regret, she says, is that she can’t place everyone who wants to volunteer. There are about twice as many willing candidates as Saint Francis has volunteer slots for; there is even a 100-person wait-list for high school and college students to participate in the volunteer summer program.
A peek into Karl’s office reveals that the dynamic director of volunteers has been recognized over and over for her leadership and dedication to community service. Among the awards displayed is a glass statue honoring her “professional excellence” from the Connecticut Association of Directors of Volunteers in Healthcare, a certificate of appreciation from the Connecticut Read to Grow program, the inaugural Sisters of Saint Joseph Award (The Sisters of Saint Joseph of Chambéry order founded the hospital) and the 2017 Healthcare Heroes awards from the Hartford Business Journal.
But what is most rewarding for Karl, she says, is being able to make a difference in both the hospital and in the life of the volunteers.
“That’s the joy I get out of it,” she says. “I say I have the best job in the hospital, because I am able to do this kind of thing. I’m working with wonderful people who are unselfishly giving their time and we are able to make an impact, so what else could be better?”
Karl points out that volunteering is not only emotionally fulfilling, but recent studies have even shown that it’s good for your health.
“When I retire, if I ever retire,” she adds, “I will definitely volunteer.”
Lori Miller Kase is a freelance writer living in Simsbury.
Photographer Seshu Badrinath of Avon specializes in intimate, natural portraits of families and children. For more information, visit seshuphotography.com