Hospice Volunteers of Hancock County volunteers and Executive Director Jody Wolford-Tucker (seated left) pose for a photo at a 2019 event. The organization, an independently licensed hospice with more than 200 volunteers, is set to celebrate 40 years of service in the Hancock County area next week. PHOTO COURTESY OF JODY WOLFORD-TUCKER

Hospice volunteers help families navigate grief and find hope

ELLSWORTH — In four decades, there’s been no challenge too great for Hospice Volunteers of Hancock County.

Built on the foundation of countless volunteers’ care and dedication, the organization has become a vital service in the Hancock County health care community. Now, the independent service is in the midst of celebrating a major milestone: 40 years of providing nonmedical end-of-life care, support and comfort to countless local residents and their families. The organization’s anniversary comes at a time when that care and compassion are needed more than ever in the community.

In 1980, a group of local physicians, nurses and other medical professionals and concerned citizens joined forces to create an independent, volunteer-based hospice organization in Hancock County. The effort grew throughout the region, and at the turn of the millennium, Hospice Volunteers doubled its staff from two members to four and purchased a house for its headquarters in Ellsworth.

Yet the organization’s growth didn’t stop there. By 2004, Hospice Volunteers of Hancock County had 17 volunteer coordinators and care managers capable of completing home assessments and overseeing care planning for patients on a daily basis. By 2020, it was serving 135 patients and their families annually.

“This program started like many others in this rural, spread-out state at that time,” Executive Director Jody Wolford-Tucker told The American. “Local physicians identified a need in the community, got together some of their colleagues and came together to provide something that could fill that need.”

Mission statement

Hospice Volunteers of Hancock County seeks to enhance the lives of those experiencing life-limiting illness and grief and loss by providing quality, cost-free compassionate support and comfort.

Our guiding values are: dedication to the preservation of individual choice, dignity and quality of life; support for volunteers and the hospice team; hospice education, advocacy and community engagement.

Today, the organization has a team of 125 highly trained direct-service volunteers whose professional skill sets range from patient care to bereavement to a team of hospice singers that has been an organizational staple since 2008. Hospice Volunteers also boasts 100 behind-the-scenes volunteers.

Those volunteers form the backbone of an organization that neither charges for services nor is reimbursed by state or local governments or insurance companies. Whether they’re providing direct care or companionship, each one is vital to the organization’s mission.

“I volunteer as a bereavement volunteer because it makes me feel good to walk the journey with someone who has lost a loved one,” said Linda Smith, who also serves on the HVHC Program Committee. “I can’t fix their pain, but I can be there to say, ‘I care’ and ‘I’m here to walk with you.’”

Some volunteers have been volunteering for most or even all of the organization’s existence. Nan Miller, the regional coordinator for the Mount Desert Island area, has been involved with the local chapter’s patient care efforts since the 1980s.

“I enjoy the part that I do: the assessment, meeting the families and making the connection between the volunteers and the patients,” Miller said. “I have such a wonderful group of volunteers to choose from when I match a volunteer to a patient and family.”

Keeping up any volunteer effort for a significant length of time — much less 40 years — is no easy task. Yet Hospice Volunteers of Hancock County, Wolford-Tucker believes, has been able to thrive because of its evolving mission, professional and fiscal responsibility, expanded perception throughout the region and overall responsiveness and ability to fill a vital community role.

The organization’s status as a state-licensed independent hospice helps it achieve that goal. The organization partners with medical hospices to provide many of its services, which Wolford-Tucker notes as being “applicable at some point in every person’s and every family’s life.”

“Because our organization predated the medical hospices, they contract with us,” Wolford-Tucker said. “Being independent allows us to be much more flexible. … We can be more responsive to the needs of the community.”

In the era of COVID-19 and social distancing, a hospice environment built on closeness and togetherness has had to make a few changes.

Yet difficult times often bring out the most courageous spirits, and Hospice Volunteers of Hancock County has seized an opportunity to reach patients and their families in new ways. From hiring a new bereavement services coordinator to implementing online support groups to, most recently, working toward a safe, detailed return to in-person care and support, the organization has been working diligently to address the challenges brought on by COVID-19.

“I think one thing that’s been difficult about this virus is that it’s not just a loss of life; it’s a loss of a way of life,” Wolford-Tucker said. “Our volunteers have always been some of the best in others’ time of need, and you’re really seeing that right now at a time that’s a time of need for a lot more people.”

In recognition of 40 years of service, the organization will be holding a virtual ceremony as part of its annual meeting at 6 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 16. The event will feature live appearances by palliative care specialist Dr. Robert “Ira” Byock and singer-songwriter Noel Paul Stookey as well as a keynote presentation by Dr. Sam Harrington, author of “At Peace: Choosing a Good Death After a Long Life.”

In the future, Wolford-Tucker said, HVHC will continue to evolve to meet its patients’ needs. As the world changes and the state ages, she and the organization’s hundreds of other volunteers want those in need to have in Hospital Volunteers of Hancock County.

“I’ve always said that a hospice is a gift that a community gives itself,” Wolford-Tucker said. “We will always be about reaching out, helping people and giving them the comfort and care they need in the end-of-life process.”

Mike Mandell

Mike Mandell

Mike Mandell is the sports editor at The Ellsworth American and Mount Desert Islander. He began working for The American in August 2016. You can reach him via email at [email protected]

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