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Volunteers far outnumber paid staff at Hospice: These people go the extra mile to help out

Merlyn Olson spent nearly 100 hours creating two tractor replicas and drove over 700 miles selling raffle tickets for them. SUBMITTED PHOTO

It takes a special kind of person to sit with somebody who is dying, look them in the eyes and help them face the end.

But locally, people like that are rarely in short supply.

According to Hospice of the Red River Valley Volunteer Coordinator Stephanie Baker, the number of people stepping up to the plate as a volunteer is nearly double what they even have for employees — 45 volunteers to the 25 employees.

“I’m always amazed at the amount of time people will spend of their own lives helping others,” said Baker.

Merlyn Olson of Flom is one of those volunteers who took his talents of woodworking, his love of tractors and turned it into significant money for Hospice of the Red River Valley.

The volunteer of three years and dairy farmer of 50 years spent nearly 100 hours building two 1/16 replicas of a 4-wheel drive tractor made from oak and power tools.

“Then I asked the Flom Lions Club to help me sell raffle tickets for them, and they were all for it,” said Olson, who also took the initiative to personally drive a total of 784 miles all around the region selling the tickets.

Olson said all the effort was worth it. “Big time,” he said, smiling.

Olson and his Lions Club pulled in $2,195.00 for those two little tractors.

“Well ya, it made me feel good,” he said modestly in his thick Minnesota accent.

When needed, Olson also visits patients in his area who are in the last three to six months of their lives.

“We walk the dog, read them a story, cook them a meal… whatever they need,” said Olson, who says each patient he visits is different and so is the feeling he gets when he’s with them.

“Sometimes you feel sorry for the person and you wish they could pass away,” he said. Some people are bubbly and want to visit and you have a good time with them.”

Olson says he’s learned a lot over the past few years of doing this, as Hospice RRV training has helped him learn how to most easily visit with somebody with dementia and Alzheimer’s. 

“I really got into that because my mother-in-law has severe dementia, and so now I can teach other people how to talk to them,” said Olson, who is giving a talk to his Lions Club on the subject.

Olson says a big part of his volunteering is the comfort he hopes to give the family even after his assigned patient passes away.

There are moments that will always stick with him and push him to keep doing what he does.

The day one of his patients passed away, he visited with the family, telling stories of his time with their loved one.

“And at the funeral, one of the boys came up to me and gave me a big hug and said, ‘That was one of the greatest afternoons… thank you,’” said Olson. I’ll never forget that.

Puppy love

Another volunteer comes in a package of six legs and two, big hearts.

Detroit Lakes Special Education Teacher and Hospice of the Red River Valley volunteer Deb Tucker is one half of a duo that seems to have a way of putting smiles on the faces of even the most grim patients.

The other half is a Keeshond therapy dog named Gracie.

Together, they drive around the Detroit Lakes area spreading their comfort to those nearing the end of life.

According to Tucker, Gracie can sometimes have an effect on patients that have little response to humans.

“Gracie was lying in bed with this one lady who has dementia and who because of that isn’t very verbal or pleasant,” said Tucker, “but with Gracie, she was petting her and singing “You Are My Sunshine” to her and calling her a rascal…I have never seen her so lucid. It was really remarkable.”

Tucker has many heart-warming stories of Gracie and her end-of-life patients, but there is one aspect of her usually peppy dog that most would find amazing.

“Gracie is able to sense when a death is approaching,” said Tucker. “She ‘tells’ me something is not right.  She is more calm about it now.  When this time does approach, she’ll lay her head on the person and “just be there” for them – in a calmer state than a usual visit.”

Tucker adds that Gracie focuses more on family members during that time, as well.

She says people tend to ‘share’ things with Gracie and often feel freer to be themselves and not worry about anything else.

“It makes me feel wonderful,” said Tucker. “Everyone says ‘thank you’ for doing this, but the benefit is all mine. It teaches me more about living than dying.”

Celebration Bears

It was a Hospice of the Red River Valley volunteer that also came up with a comforting idea that is growing in demand locally.

“They are called ‘celebration bears,’ and they are little teddy bears that are sewn together using an old shirt or blanket or something from a loved one that has passed away,” said Baker. The service started in Detroit Lakes with one lady who volunteered to sew the bears, but has now taken off as something being offered throughout all of the Hospice of the Red River Valley coverage.

“The teddy bear has a little ribbon with a little poem on it that states that your loved one is always with you, handmade with love  by a hospice volunteer,” said Baker. “It just gives people, especially grandchildren, something to hold and remember their loved one by.”

Lots to do

Although the bulk of volunteering for Hospice of the Red River Valley is done through patient care like what Olson does, this type of potentially heart-wrenching work isn’t for everyone.

But Baker says that’s okay because there are so many ways to help.

“I have a barber who volunteers to go around cutting people’s hair; I have a massage therapist who volunteers on her days off to give massages to patients who might want one; there are some people who come in to help with office work and some who help with public relations putting up booths at various events,” said Baker, who says initial training is roughly three hours with four in-service training sessions held throughout the year.

Hospice of the Red River Valley covers much of Minnesota and North Dakota, with different regions of coverage.

The one Baker heads up is essentially a 65-mile radius around Detroit Lakes, going from Mahnomen to Park Rapids to Wadena to Fergus Falls to Hawley.

Although she says this area has a lot of good volunteers, she struggles to get enough people to visit those in the Mahnomen and Waubun area.

For more information on how to become a volunteer, call Stephanie Baker at 701-429-7383.