Reflections from an Iona Volunteer: Volunteering Changed My Life

April 23, 2017

If my Human Services and Social Justice major is any indication, I have long had a love for working directly with others and serving the community.

Throughout my time at George Washington University (GW), I have volunteered every semester, both because I love it and because I’m required to fulfill service learning requirements for my major. After volunteering for two semesters with children of different age groups at the School Without Walls at Francis-Stevens, I started to realize that working with children wasn’t exactly my forte.

Ali Perry and her grandmother
Ali Perry (left) volunteered with Hospice in honor of her grandmother. This experience would eventually lead her to Iona.

During my second semester working at the school, my grandmother’s breast cancer diagnosis began to accelerate at a frightening pace. We lost her in December: she passed peacefully in her own home, comforted by my family and the in-home hospice care professionals who had helped her so much throughout her battle with cancer.

Forging connections through Hospice

Seeing the incredible impact that my grandmother’s nurses and doctor had on her life, especially towards the end, inspired me to volunteer with hospice patients the following semester.

I started volunteering at VITAS Healthcare, a hospice healthcare center located in Northeast DC. From the very start, working with hospice patients was very emotionally exhausting for me.

I thought it would comfort me to work with these patients and know that I could possibly make an important impact on them, just like hospice care did for my grandmother. But, it was incredibly hard for me to look past all of the loss and pain. I became very close to the wife of one of the patients I visited with regularly, and became a source of support to her as she watched her husband with Alzheimer’s slowly fade away.

Lessons on Aging

It wasn’t as much through working with the hospice patients themselves, as it was providing support to their spouses, that made me realize my passion for working with older adults.

I found such genuine and candid connections with the older women I became close to during my weekly visits, learning a great deal about them and the world they have seen evolve so much within their lifetimes.

One of the women I visited with often described aging as “a world of opportunities,” an idea that has stuck with me, especially since it came from someone who had so much taken away from her by her husband’s cruel disease.

Continuing on with my service learning at GW, I knew I wanted to work with older adults, though I didn’t think I could continue to work in the hospice capacity for a handful of reasons.

One of my professors at GW first introduced me to Iona, urging me to do some research on the organization as it provided innovative care to older adults in DC, as well as helped them adjust to both challenges and opportunities of aging.

Finding my way to Iona

Ali-at-St.-Alban'sFrom my first day as a volunteer at Iona’s Active Wellness program at St. Alban’s, I was instantly drawn in by the eclectic group of participants. I made countless valuable connections with older adults at St. Alban’s, and often times stayed late just to have a chance to talk to them longer. There is so much to be learned by talking with older adults, especially at my age, because we both have such different perspectives of the world and have so many contrasting experiences.

I left each day at St. Alban’s feeling like I had learned something new, made an impact on the lives of others, and shown appreciation to a generation that is so near and dear to my heart. I volunteered at St. Alban’s through December, and even after finishing my last semester of required service hours, I wasn’t ready to say goodbye to Iona. So I decided to seek an internship at Iona’s main office, where I now work as a Communications and Marketing intern.

Despite the many hurdles it can and often does present, aging provides so many different opportunities to continue to learn and grow as an individual. This is the core of Iona’s mission, an organization that strives to provide older adults with resources and support to face some of life’s most difficult challenges, as well as appreciate and take advantage of opportunities.

As a hospice volunteer, I heard that aging opens a world of possibilities. Two years later, Iona has shown me how true that statement really is.

Becoming a part of Iona’s family as a volunteer and intern has broadened my community and introduced me to incredible and talented older adults, staff members, and other volunteers.

As this week is National Volunteer Week, why not celebrate by giving back to your community? If you are interested in volunteering at Iona, I encourage you to read more here and then contact our volunteer coordinator at volunteer@iona.org.

Are you an Iona volunteer? We’d love to hear from you! Share your story in the comments.

By Ali Perry

Ali Perry is a Communications and Marketing Intern at Iona, and a former volunteer at our Active Wellness Program at St. Alban’s. She is a senior at The George Washington University studying Human Services and Social Justice, and intends to pursue a career in Nonprofit Management.