Volunteers often come to Empath Health with the goal of giving back after experiencing the organization’s Full Life Care, either first-hand or through a loved one.
Joan Timberlake, though, had no personal experience with loss at an early age before she volunteered with the Blue Butterfly Family Grief Program, which helps children and teens cope with the death of a special person in their lives.
She views her service as an extension of her life’s work. Timberlake moved to Siesta Key a year ago after a career as a child life specialist in Chicago. She has a part-time job in retail, but she sought a meaningful way to spend her free time. She went through volunteer training in November and became a full-fledged Blue Butterfly volunteer in January.
“This was a perfect fit for me,” Timberlake said. “Even though I’m semi-retired, I still have a lot of years left in me. This speaks to me. I really, really enjoy working with children and families.”
Tidewell Grief Care’s Blue Butterfly Family Grief Program, a member of Empath Health, began almost five years ago as part of the Tidewell Hospice grief and bereavement service. It is a safe space for children ages 5-18 and their caregivers to grieve and process after a significant death in their lives. Timberlake is impressed with the program, which employs clinical mental health professionals leading age-based peer support groups. It is free to all participants, thanks to grants and charitable donations to the Tidewell Foundation.
Timberlake spends four hours on Wednesdays at the Blue Buttefly Family Grief Center in Lakewood Ranch doing administrative tasks and preparing meeting spaces for upcoming counseling sessions. She participates in group sessions at the Bethlehem Bible Church in the Newtown area of Sarasota and Ellenton.
“When I come here, no job is too big or too small,” Timberlake said. “You could write thank-you cards, or you could help organize or set up a meal. There are so many different tasks and jobs for whatever your interest is. After each group, we sit down with all the facilitators and counselors and go through what we saw in each group. That’s important because sometimes volunteers will pick up something. They ask us for our observations. It’s helpful to have another set of eyes and ears.”
Blue Butterfly Director Danielle Visone, MSW, LCSW, said volunteers are crucial to the program’s mission. She and four other full-time colleagues are responsible for covering four locations and four counties (Sarasota, Manatee, Charlotte, DeSoto). There are about 30 Blue Butterfly volunteers. Visone would love to have even more.
“None of this would be possible without the help of our amazing, dedicated volunteers,” she said. “Our volunteers come to group nights with love and compassion to meet the kids where they are in their grief journey and share love and compassion with them.”
Volunteers are vital to non-profit healthcare organizations like Empath Health. During Fiscal Year 2022, Empath’s 2,000 volunteers provided almost 200,000 hours of service that represented more than $5 million of value to the company. In 2019, the nation’s hospice volunteers generated more than $469 million in annual savings, the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization (NHPCO) reported.
Unfortunately, Empath Health has suffered a reduction of volunteers that began during the COVID-19 pandemic. According to Vice President of Volunteer Engagement Stacy Groff, volunteer numbers are down 30 to 50 percent from pre-pandemic levels, depending on the service line. Few of the volunteers who left during the pandemic are returning.
Timberlake says she encourages others to get involved with Empath Health if they are looking for a way to make a difference in their communities.
“I love being here,” Timberlake said. “When I check in with family members and friends who aren’t here in Florida, usually this is the first thing I talk about. With my friends up north, they have this idea of Florida being palm trees and margaritas all day. What I keep reminding them is that there are a lot of people suffering. Whatever your interests are, you can find time. … I never leave Blue Butterfly in a bad mood. Somehow we always leave with a smile.”
For more information about volunteering in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties, call (727) 523-3440. In Sarasota, Manatee, Charlotte and DeSoto counties, call (941) 441-2061. Information and an application are available at EmpathVolunteers.org.