SPRINGFIELD — On a cold Friday morning, a group of eight volunteers gathers in a small room at Mercy Hospital Springfield, chatting, drinking coffee and reading the paper as they listen for the phone to ring.
Betty Skipworth monitors the phone, waiting to send another volunteer to pick up a patient.
Longtime volunteer Debbie Tangora is one of those patient escorts. The phone rings and Tangora is ready to go. "We're gonna have a good run," she says.
Tangora helps at the hospital three days a week. She started five years ago, after her 24-year-old daughter, Brandi, drowned at Table Rock Lake, and is one of thousands who volunteer their time in hospitals across the country. Volunteers assist with almost every operation of a hospital. They help make patients' experiences positive and benefit hospitals financially.
"I'm so lucky to work with all these people," Tangora said, a smile filling her face.
Tangora said she wants to give back.
"I love people, and I like smiling faces. When you come to the hospital, you want somebody smiling," she said. "I just felt like that is how I can help."
With a kind voice, Tangora greets one of her first patients of the day. Every week, Bettie Cox comes to Mercy's Outpatient Burn and Wound Clinic and requires a wheelchair to take her to the seventh floor.
"Good morning, dear," Tangora says in greeting. She wheels Cox to the clinic, turns on the TV and makes sure she is comfortable before heading back to the waiting room for another call.
Over the course of a year, about 800 volunteers donate their time to area Mercy locations, according to Molly Holtmann, director of volunteer services at Mercy. In 2012, volunteers donated around 170,000 hours to the hospital, she says.
"They are definitely part of the story here at Mercy," she says. "Every volunteer makes a difference in the reputation of compassion and caring that Mercy has."
Like Mercy, Cox South hospital also benefits from volunteers.
Last year CoxHealth had around 1,000 volunteers who collectively donated more than 146,000 hours, according to Barbara Frogue, director of volunteer services at Cox.
At both hospitals, volunteers can be found in almost every department.
The Points of Light Foundation has determined that a volunteer hour is worth $21.79, and both hospitals use this figure to determine the monetary value of their volunteers. Mercy and Cox had approximately $3.7 million and $3.2 million, respectively, in donated time in 2012, according to the volunteer services directors.
At both hospitals, volunteers typically work four-hour shifts. Some volunteers donate one shift per week, while others treat volunteering as a full-time job.
The life span of a volunteer also varies greatly. Holtmann says some volunteers work only a couple of weeks; others have donated their time at Mercy for more than 30 years. Frogue says there is a similar variation among Cox volunteers.
Volunteers are able to work in nearly every department in the hospital. While some departments have more volunteers — patient escort and delivering flowers, for instance — people can request to help in any department, Holtmann says.
Cox has many nontraditional volunteers who do not fit in a particular category, Frogue says. They have some volunteers who paint fingernails, make crafts and play piano.
"We're always looking for volunteers," she says.
A volunteer must be caring and have a passion for volunteering, Frogue says.
"We do interviews. We don't take everybody," she adds.
Both hospitals have a process for volunteers. Those who are interested go through an orientation and a one-on-one interview. Volunteer directors say they want to make sure people are volunteering for the right reasons, which varies with every person.
"We have volunteers that volunteer for every reason. Although they are giving something of themselves, they are volunteering for a reason, too," Holtmann says.
At both Cox and Mercy, holding babies is the most popular and most requested volunteer job, according to Frogue and Holtmann. Frogue says there was a two-year waiting list at one time. Holtmann says volunteers are required to donate at least 40 hours of time before they are allowed to interview with pediatrics.
Margie Beadles and Louise Williams are volunteers in the Cox gift shop. Beadles started volunteering in 2000, and after Beadle's suggestion, Williams started volunteering in 2006.
"I always wanted to do volunteer work when I retired," says Beadles, a retired school administrator from Ozark. Beadles says she decided to volunteer at Cox because she wanted to help people, like her family members who were helped when they were in the hospital.
"I had lots of family members who have been in the hospital, so I certainly appreciated the care that was given here," she says.
Williams says she likes working in the gift shop: "It's kind of like Christmas for us because we get to unpack everything."
Beadles and Williams also price merchandise and store it, or bring it upstairs to be sold.
Beadles says the gift shop is an escape for people who come to the hospital because it takes their minds off their health problems.
"Something I enjoy the most is putting a smile on someone's face because most of the situations are really serious," she says.
Holtmann says she tells volunteers during orientation that they are likely going to be the first and last person a patient sees when coming to the hospital. Often, when people come to the hospital, they are scared or upset, Holtmann says, so volunteers need to be caring and respectful. "They are going to remember that contact forever," she says.