Six McCallie School students have helped Hospice of Chattanooga launch a new volunteer program.
The six are the first teenage group to complete 20 hours of training and volunteer with Hospice of Chattanooga through its school program.
Hospice visitors provide comfort and support to terminally ill patients and their families. The McCallie teens visit residents of NHC Healthcare-Parkwood.
The six McCallie volunteers include two freshmen day students, Adam Connell and Ralston Hartness. The other four are boarding students: freshmen Daniel Condrey of Birmingham, Ala., and Kyle Loechel of Indianapolis; sophomore Jackson Houston of Nashville and junior Xiangjiu Wang of China.
These aren't boarding students with time on their hands, looking for something to do. The guys play football, baseball, wrestle, row, are musicians, student senators and members of campus organizations.
Hartness and Loechel both said they volunteered because they'd had family members in hospice programs.
"I wanted to give back," said Loechel.
"I was looking for a way to get involved in the community," said Condrey. "My first night here, we had a vestry service and they mentioned this. The more I thought about it, I thought it would be a good way to minister to the elderly."
"My dad is in a nursing home but not in hospice," said Houston.
"I did this because my dad doesn't get a lot of people to visit him, but I'd like it if somebody would. I don't want to be a hypocrite, so if I want somebody to visit my dad, I need to visit someone, too," said the sophomore.
Hospice and nursing homes are settings in which most visitors are uncomfortable because no one likes to be reminded of their own mortality, say McCallie and Hospice officials.
"It's an extremely tough topic for adults, let alone young people," said Sue Coulliette, Hospice of Chattanooga volunteer coordinator.
"For young people to be willing to come in, to spend their time being trained, to learn about death and dying is extremely unique," she said.
Josh Dietrich, McCallie chaplain, said this training was a natural outgrowth of a Parkwood nursing home visitation McCallie has participated in for four years. Dietrich and Correna Andrews, upper school science teacher, are faculty sponsors and provide transportation for the teens to NHC Healthcare.
Dietrich said as a chaplain he believes there is a lot of intrinsic value for adults in their last stages of life to sit down with young people and share some of the things they've learned.
"It's neat for them to be able to pass that experience on to a young person, and it's also valuable for that young person to take in their wisdom," he said.
Hartness said each student has a list of patients with whom they regularly visit.
"We ask how they are feeling and talk about whatever they want. Sometimes you walk into a room and they are awake and can carry on a good conversation. Sometimes they won't respond, and in that case it's usually a monologue," Hartness said.
"We're encouraged to get to know our patients, but you have to be cautious because you know what's going to happen," said Loechel. "Typically, we just talk to them. I might read something for them in the paper that they are curious about."
"The more you talk to them and learn about them, it makes them really glad they get to pass something on to share," said Houston.
"A lot of people ask me what it's like trying to get to know these people, knowing they are going to die. I tell them that when you do this, you don't focus on the mortality part," said Condrey. "These people are so happy to see us that I leave feeling uplifted; you only see the positive side even though it's such a dark situation."
Coulliette said the McCallie teens have shown such commitment to their visits that the program is already expanding. She said 21 Girls Preparatory School students are scheduled to begin training today.
She said Hospice of Chattanooga has had conversations with Silverdale Academy and Notre Dame to begin programs, and the nonprofit has plans to contact Hamilton County high schools.