Candy striper Lea MacDonald

Alberni high school students earn their stripes

High school credits, a peek at a possible career and a brightening a senior citizen’s day are some of the benefits of being a candy striper.

High school credits, a peek at a possible career and a brightening a senior citizen’s day are just some of the benefits of a candy striper program at Fir Park and Echo Village.

ADSS Grade 11 student Lea MacDonald, 17, volunteers as a candy striper at Fir Park and Echo Village one Thursday afternoon a week.

MacDonald’s grandmother told her about the opportunity and she looked into it at the ADSS career centre.

“I needed volunteer hours for graduation so it helps,” she said. “I want the experience of doing this because it may be good for my future too because I can put it on my resume.”

On this Thursday, MacDonald gently fed a female resident, patiently feeding one spoon of food at a time while coaxing the resident then praising her.

On other days, MacDonald might read letters or a book to residents, stack tables and chairs after an activity or just be a companion and sit and listen.

MacDonald came from Japan to live in Canada three years ago, about the same time the candy striper program got off the ground.

She had friends at school but found a special companion while candy striping. “She didn’t talk much and said things about her family at random. Sometimes she wanted to go home,” MacDonald said. “She died shortly after and that was sad.”

Dealing with death is just one of the challenges that candy stripers face but they come in prepared, said Fir Park Program Director Leanne Fines.

There are 15 candy stripers who volunteer at Fir Park and Echo Village, Fines said. There is also a separate candy striping program at West Coast General Hospital.

.The three-years old program seemed like a good fit at the care facilities. Students got volunteer hours towards grad and staff would get help with various tasks. But there were challenges getting launching the program.

There was an initial fear on the part of the union that they would lose jobs because of the initiative, she said. “But with one staff member for every five residents we negotiated tasks like help during feeding and other duties that had piled up during the day,” Fines said.

After more than three-years of administrative work the program got off the ground.

Candy striping has increased in popularity since its inception, going from five candy stripers the first year to 15 this year.

Fines works closely with the ADSS career centre is soliciting volunteers.

Those interested have to go through a 10-hour orientation before working in a facility.

“They learn about issues such as dementia, seniors behaviours and death. And we have them practice feeding by feeding each other,” Fines said. “We try to get the “Ews” out of the way right away.”

In addition to credit for volunteer hours candy stripers also benefit in other ways.

They learn things they didn’t know how to do, like speak other languages with residents or even learn how to knit.

They become defacto family for residents who have none.

And pick up wisdom from residents who pass along their life’s experiences.

Candy striper Jen Banfield inquired about the opportunity after watching ABC News at ADSS. After an orientation she started at Echo Village.

She performs tasks she’s asked to but has also shown initiative.

An animal enthusiast, Banfield brought in chicks that were hatched at the facility, as well as run a petting farm, she said.

Picking up people skills is an intangible benefit of the job.

“You learn how to deal with people and relate to them,” she said. “You learn a lot of patience too.”

Banfield needs those people skills and orientation to deal with the myriad of issues she encounters while candy striping.

Some residents exhibit sundown syndrome which is characterized by restlessness, confusion and anxiety often before feeding.

Other residents coping with dementia repeatedly ask Banfield for her name.

But the loss of one resident in particular tested Banfield’s resolve, she said.

Banfield connected with one particular resident during her shifts. “He had speech issues but he was always friendly. He greeted me all the time and would even look for me when I arrived,” she said.

The man died while Banfield was doing her candy striping shift. “That was the hardest thing I ever went through. I was devastated,” she said. “But he’s in a better place now and I helped make his life a little bit better while he was here.”

Fines hopes to grow out the program, she said.

She wants to continue building relationships with other organizations in the city. She hopes to solicit interest in the program with international students as well as with students from VAST.

And she hopes to partner with North Island College on initiatives for volunteers who consider careers with seniors, she said.

reporter@albernivalleynews.com

Twitter.com/AlberniNews

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