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Finding new purpose through volunteering

Gerber, Lois MPH, BSN, RN

doi: 10.1097/01.NURSE.0000502756.56441.a4

Nurses are uniquely prepared to contribute to their communities as volunteers in various settings. Here's how to get started.

Lois Gerber currently serves as guardian ad litem for Florida.

The author has disclosed no financial relationships related to this article.



VOLUNTEERING IS A PERFECT MATCH for many nurses. As educated nurturers with specialized skills ready to meet the needs of people all along the life spectrum, nurses are well-suited for several different volunteer efforts.1 This article will help nurses answer the question, “What can I contribute?” and provide examples of volunteer work and information on how to get started.

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The benefits of volunteering

Volunteering provides an opportunity to meet people and expand social support networks. For a retired nurse, volunteer commitments can also lend structure to the day and help him or her stay positively engaged in life, which enhances creativity and personal growth. Research shows persons actively engaged in learning lose fewer brain cells and stay mentally sharper as they age.2,3 Even though the atmosphere may be more relaxed than a clinical employment setting and the schedule more personalized, commitment is essential to getting the most out of a volunteer opportunity.2-4

Some nurses desire positions in specialty areas where they haven't previously practiced. Eileen, a former hospital clinical nurse, now volunteers in a faith-based organization providing BP monitoring, health teaching, and counseling to her church members. Faith community nurses like Eileen work with patients holistically, addressing problems with the mind, body, and spirit.5 Others prefer to pursue volunteer experience in the same field in which they practice or formerly practiced. As a psychiatric nurse retiree, Cindy provides counseling to older adults through a community-based organization committed to positive aging.

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Legal requirements

Many volunteer positions require that nurse volunteers maintain a current license in their state of practice, and undergo a criminal background check and child abuse and sexual offender history clearances. Malpractice insurance is suggested for volunteers involved in any part of the nursing process. Even if direct patient care isn't part of their responsibilities, volunteer nurses must adhere to their states' legal practice guidelines. This includes assessment, counseling, teaching, supervision, delegation, and evaluation related to patients and their healthcare. Each state has different legal requirements, so it's important to check with your state's Board of Nursing before committing.6-8

Nurses must be competent in their practice areas and are personally responsible for learning any new skills needed in their volunteer settings. Most hospitals and agencies providing direct patient care require health screening for TB and other communicable diseases and documentation of up-to-date vaccination schedules, including the annual influenza vaccine. Some states require volunteer nurses to wear name badges identifying them as licensed professionals.6,9

Volunteers are entitled to deduct volunteer-related expenses on their federal tax returns, but must maintain adequate records. Deductible items include travel expenses, including tolls and parking, meals and lodging for overnight stays, and convention and conference expenditures related to the volunteer organization.6

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Types of volunteer opportunities

Volunteering at hospitals is an especially good fit for retired nurses. They can assist with patient hygiene, assess vital signs, and provide one-to-one observation for the seriously ill. Activities such as greeting patients and visitors, feeding and rocking babies, and working in gift shops also are appropriate.4,10

Volunteers are an essential component of a well-run hospice program. Nurse volunteers assist at the bedside, provide caregiver relief, and counsel patients and their bereaved families.11

Other types of volunteer positions include long-term-care ombudsman, foster grandparent, teacher's aide, and counselor for at-risk teens. Programs for patients with cancer, dementia, visual impairment, or children with disabilities, may be of interest.12

Nurses can also provide services to local blood banks and volunteer at influenza immunization clinics, homeless shelters, or senior center health screening programs. Serving as a camp nurse—especially for a community of children with disabilities—working for the American Red Cross, or participating in the medical reserve corps for natural or man-made disasters are other possibilities.1,12,13

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Client advocacy

Nurses interested in client advocacy have myriad opportunities. Volunteer patient advocates work independently to ensure consumers have a voice in their healthcare and can successfully navigate the system. Nursing input allows for objective guidance and better articulation of patient symptoms as well as follow-up instructions. These volunteers accompany clients to appointments, facilitating two-way communication between the patients and their healthcare providers. They can stay by the hospitalized patient's bedside, review and negotiate hospital bills, and provide information on community resources and other needed services.14,15

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Mentoring nursing students on academic and clinical issues and career goals is another way nurses can contribute to the profession. Mentoring is an ongoing collaborative process between a novice and an experienced practitioner who's personable, approachable, and competent.16 The relationship can continue until the participants decide the mentee's goals have been met, which may take a few weeks or several months. Commitment of both parties is essential. Retired nurse mentors will receive fresh energy and new ideas from younger colleagues. The one-to-one interaction can be conducted online or in face-to-face meetings.16,17

High schools, especially charter schools that serve troubled populations, are rich volunteer sites for retired nurses.18 For several years, using my community health nursing skills, I served as a volunteer mentor at a charter school for pregnant and parenting teens. I met with students one-to-one for an hour every week, teaching these young women parenting and relationship skills and family planning options, while supporting their educational goals. I made home visits and referred the youth to appropriate community resources. My university teaching background helped me institute a community health nursing clinical rotation from a local university that's still functioning 5 years later.

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My story

For the last 9 years, I've been a volunteer guardian ad litem, a court appointed advocate for abused and neglected children followed by the state's Department of Children and Family Services. Even with my years as a community health nurse, I, like all the volunteers, needed to complete a 30-hour training program. Besides writing monthly reports, I attend court hearings related to placement and parental visitation rights.19 I assess the children's living situation—their own home, foster care home, group home, or relative's home—and follow up on their school progress and health issues. Many of these children are prescribed medications for behavioral disorders; monitoring for adverse drug reactions is essential.

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Volunteering abroad

Overseas volunteer experiences can be particularly exciting. Nurse anesthetists, midwives, and OR nurses are in high demand.20 Doctors without Borders is another organization looking for nurse volunteers. (See Online resources.) These nurses provide basic medical care and wellness education. Sigma Theta Tau and the Global Volunteers Organization provide information and links to many volunteer organizations serving the health needs of people throughout the world.21,22

Nurses working in impoverished regions likely will see immediate positive responses to their interventions, which can be very satisfying. Assignments can be short term, 1 to 3 weeks, or long term, with a 1-year minimum. Some organizations pay for transportation and cover food and lodging. Researching the organization of interest and the support it provides volunteers is important.20

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Advocating for nurses

Working as an advocate or joining a committee of the American Nurses Association or a state counterpart gives nurses the opportunity to have a legislative impact on the profession. A significant portion of state budgets is designated to fund healthcare, but many legislators aren't from the healthcare field. It's up to nurses to strengthen nursing's voice in the political arena and protect and safeguard the Nurse Practice Act.23

Local politics may also appeal to some nurses. Options here include school board, city council, and ad hoc committee memberships.23,24

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Something for everyone

Nurses at all levels of experience benefit from making connections, learning new skills, and gaining insights into nursing and patient care from their volunteer experiences. Volunteering is truly a win-win for all involved.1,15

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Online resources

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    19. USLegal, Inc. Guardian ad litem law and legal definition. 2016.
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    24. Hilton L. Experts say it's time for all nurses to get political. 2012. https://
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