Although I believe that community service should be a habit rather than an annual event, I am a big fan of Mandela Day. I’m a child of the 90s, after all, and my first hero was Nelson Mandela. There’s nothing quite like a day where the whole nation reaches out to one another to build morale. (And it’s not just for South Africans!)
Public hospitals are a popular venue for community service, which is not entirely a bad thing because many of our patients truly fit the description of being disenfranchised.
But every year, my colleagues and I find ourselves a little annoyed by many of the people who arrive to do their bit. Here are some pointers if you intend to visit a hospital this Mandela Day – or any other day.
1. …call ahead: Don’t arrive unannounced, especially if you intend to do an activity. If you are just dropping off some goodies, you could probably get away with not making an appointment, but at the very least come during visiting hours. If you come at a random hour you stand a good chance of being in the way while nurses and doctors are performing vital duties.
2. …ask what is needed: I’m a firm believer in not coming to hospital to clean the floors, because cleaning staff are paid to do that. But maybe there is a workers’ strike or a staff shortage. Sometimes ward clerks are on leave and we just need things like papers to be photocopied. Maybe you want to paint a ward, but that might not be a need. Don’t waste your time fulfilling a need that does not exist.
3. …come prepared: If you do 1 and 2, this shouldn’t be hard. Please, PLEASE don’t arrive and expect to be told what to do. We love seeing you there, but the staff really are too busy to figure out what you can do. Come with a plan of action, all your necessary material, and probably a back-up plan too.
4. …get the necessary permission: Public hospitals also have standards for visitors. Make sure you have permission, otherwise you might find yourself being obstructed and that isn’t nice for any of us.
5. …treat our patients and staff with the same respect you would at a private facility: Our facilities might be a bit more haggard, and our patients are vulnerable. Treat them like you would want a loved one to be treated.
6. …bring someone who can speak the local language(s): Hopefully you don’t just want to float around, but connect with patients. It’s hard if you don’t speak their language. Make an effort to introduce yourself in the local language of most patients, but find someone with better proficiency to do much of the talking. (Not a staff member! They have jobs!)
7. …be willing to do something that isn’t necessarily your idea of a good time: I know we all want to interact with kids, but sometimes the need is really to have a messy storeroom organized.
8. …try to do something that is sustainable: the best community service project is one that is sustainable, and by definition not an in-out event. Using Mandela Day to start a project that will continue for months or years is probably the best service you can give.
9. …take photos: This service is for others, not for your own ego. If you wouldn’t do it without the photos, should you really be doing it at all? Furthermore, remember that any photos taken in a public hospital (for example if you need photos to show your sponsor) must be authorized by hospital management, and any photos you want to send to the media must be cleared by PR. Also, there are laws against publishing identifying features of children.
10. …get hurt: Watch out for staff who may be running around sorting their duties. Stay away from any medical waste and be aware of your body and the space surrounding it. Don’t touch anything sharp or blood-stained. Don’t go into an isolation room.
11. …walk around like a deity: You are not a god. You are not a saviour. People are allowed to decline your help. People are allowed to tell you that you are missing the plot. You are here to help, but never forget that you are also here to learn.
12. …pay money to join an outreach unless they are completely transparent about what you are paying for.
13. …stop serving after Mandela Day.
DON’T FORGET ABOUT:
14. non-terminal children: Children’s Oncology wards are another very popular choice of venue. These kids, while also needy, have a lot of funds and outreaches throughout the year, and you may also find their ward bursting to the seams with volunteers. Many long-stay children end up not having their parents with them – for example, in orthopaedics and malnutrition wards. They would love your interaction, too.
15. Allied Staff: Occupational Therapists, Physiotherapists, Dietitians and Speech Therapists can offer alternative points of view of what patients need, and can probably suggest very hands-on ideas. They are also generally very nice!!
16. smaller hospital and clinics: I find that people like to focus on larger tertiary hospitals, while clinics and smaller hospitals have great need too.
17. adults: helping children is very popular because it satisfies our nurturing instinct, but remember that adults suffer too. You might find the children’s wards overrun, but there will be space at adult wards. Many of the adult patients don’t have family nearby, and many of them experience significant lows because of their illness and their loneliness.
IDEAS TO DO AT HOSPITAL:
- Bring books (second-hand is okay, if they are decent quality. Bonus if you bought them at a charity shop because then they get revenue too!)
- Read to children, or to the elderly
- Paint faces for children (get permission from the hospital and parents, and make sure you use hypoallergenic face paint)
- Wash hair and trim nails for patients in adult wards, especially those who struggle with self-care.
- Bring food parcels to the out-patients clinics. Many people wake up at 03h00 to get to hospital, and then queue all day.
- Bring puzzles or other activities for the kids. (Bonus if the toys are representative of the children’s demographic. Kids need to see themselves in their dolls.)
- Bring magazines, crosswords, etc for adults.
- Bring small luxuries like lip balm and body creams.
- Gardening. Because of budget cuts, many hospitals have a great shortage of groundsmen. Shoveling the ground, getting rid of dead plants, and maybe even planting new plants (indigenous and water-wise) helps a lot for the morale of patients and staff.
- A special skill you have??
THINGS TO DO BESIDES VISITING A HOSPITAL:
- Offer to help at a local library
- Offer to paint classrooms at a local school
- Volunteer time at a charity shop
- Drop some things off at a charity shop (tips)
- Help people with compiling a good CV or doing a job search
- Ask a local charity/NPO/NGO what their needs are
- Teach a skill (even if it is basic typing)
- Donate sanitary products to high school girls
- Start a community vegetable garden
- Offer to mentor kids at a local high school
The opportunities are endless if you use what you’re good at and remember to ask what the needs are.