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Rural Kandiyohi volunteer logs 30 years with Rice Hospice program

Carol Benson has been a volunteer with Rice Hospice for 30 years. She spends her time there maintaining the volunteer and bereavement databases, managing the newsletter and helping with whatever is needed. Tribune photo by Anne Polta

Over the years, Rice Hospice volunteer Carol Benson has been asked many times, “How can you do what you do?” Her answer is simple. “Anybody that can be a friend can be a hospice volunteer,” says Benson. The Rice Hospice program was one year old when Benson, inspired in part by the recent death of her mother, signed up in 1983 as a volunteer. “It just seemed like something I should do,” she said.

Thirty years later she’s one of the longest-serving volunteers with Rice Hospice and one of the few to be with the program for almost its entire history.

“I think I’ve worn quite a few hats by now,” she mused.

She started as a volunteer working directly with patients and their families at the end of life.

Then she became a bereavement volunteer, following up with hospice families during the first year after their loved one’s death. She volunteers at Camp G.K. Bear, hosted by Rice Hospice twice a year to help children with the grieving process. She’s been involved in music therapy. She’s often a panelist at Rice Hospice training to educate volunteers about the many areas where they can serve.

These days Benson, 74, of rural Kandiyohi, volunteers her time and skills in the Rice Hospice office at Rice Memorial Hospital in Willmar, maintaining the volunteer and bereavement databases, managing the newsletter and helping with whatever is needed.

She comes every Monday and often is one of the last to leave at the end of the day.

“That’s what’s beautiful about a 30-year volunteer,” said Deb Van Buren, volunteer coordinator for Rice Hospice. “Sometimes they say there’s too many changes. But Carol isn’t that type. Rather than it being a deterrent, it’s part of her learning curve. … She’s committed. If there’s a snafu or a hiccup, she stays until the work is done.”

Contact with death and grieving can be daunting, Van Buren said. Those who volunteer for Rice Hospice often are motivated by their own experiences and a desire to ease the process for someone else, she said.

“I am overwhelmed by the breadth and depth of caring and compassion our volunteers have,” Van Buren said. “It’s a spirit of caring and paying things forward, a selfless demeanor. They have compassionate hearts. They are people who know the value of friendship. They really are angels in disguise.”

The Medicare hospice benefit is the only federal health program that requires a volunteer component in order to be Medicare-certified. Five percent of direct care by Medicare-certified hospice programs must be provided by volunteers.

For Rice Hospice, 20 to 25 percent of the direct care is by volunteers, Van Buren said. Many programs struggle to reach the 5 percent benchmark but “it’s never been a struggle for us,” she said.

Rice Hospice has 270 volunteers in total. About half are in the Willmar area; the rest are at satellite sites in Appleton, Benson, Dawson, Granite Falls, Montevideo, Ortonville-Graceville and Paynesville.

The youngest are in their teens. One of the oldest was in her 90s before recently stepping down, Van Buren said.

Many work directly with families, providing friendship and support during the last stages of life. Some focus on “11th-hour” care. Others offer bereavement support or are involved in pet therapy or music therapy.

Training helps new volunteers gain the skills they need — and no matter how large or small the task, every volunteer can contribute, Van Buren said. “They can do as much or as little as they want. We define our success by theirs. We want it to be a rewarding and fulfilling experience for them.”

Benson said she plans to continue volunteering for Rice Hospice “as long as I can be of help.”

“It keeps me going,” she said. “It’s something to start my week in a positive way.”

Anne Polta

Anne Polta covers health care, business/economic development and general assignment. Her HealthBeat blog can be found at Follow her on Twitter at @AnnePolta.

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