The hospice volunteer is a teenager, so he knows how to help a terminally ill patient reset the password on her laptop.
He’s only in high school, but to raise the spirit of hospice patients, he interviews them about their long-ago childhood and family memories, and videotapes their answers.
Meet Zach Martin, the Osceola High School senior who is already learning from others how to face the end of life with humor, strength and dignity. Martin, a teen volunteer with the Suncoast Hospice program, is among dozens of young people in Clearwater, Seminole and Pinellas County who have undergone volunteer training and now serve hospice patients in many different ways.
“Helping patients — whether or not they are in their final days — is an amazing experience,” Martin said. “You gain a lot when you help brighten the day of someone who really needs it.”
He has impressed the adults who oversee his volunteer work.
“Zachary was so passionate about his work with hospice that he took on a pediatric patient assignment to provide companionship to a young boy at the end of his journey on Earth,” said Elizabeth Domenech, a spokesperson for Suncoast Hospice, which is a member of Empath Health system.
Teen volunteers take the four-hour volunteer orientation provided at three Empath Health community service centers, said Jill-Anne Fowler, teen volunteer coordinator. Some teens undergo another 12 hours of training to learn how to work directly with patients and families.
The youngsters, many of them planning to attend college, can cite the volunteer work on their higher education applications. But, like Zach, they enjoy helping such unique patients.
“We have more than 350 teen volunteers in Pinellas County, including 66 teens who live in Clearwater alone,” Fowler said. “We have teens from two dozen schools, including 15 from Clearwater High School, 10 from Clearwater Central Catholic High School, four from Countryside High School, and elsewhere. Students volunteer outside the towns they live in.”
Teens can choose from a menu of activities that make daily life easier for patients, from Cheer Teams that raise patient spirits to office work behind the scenes. Teens also help patients celebrate birthdays and anniversaries, run to the store and perform other errands, and neaten up rooms — small gestures that lighten a patient’s concerns.
Martin said his experience with Windows and other computer knowledge provided him a start working at the main campus of Suncoast Hospice/Empath Health at 5771 Roosevelt Blvd., in Clearwater.
“A year later, I became a family patient volunteer where you go all over the area, visit certain patients,” he said. “I joined a Cheer Team and took on more assignments directly helping patients.”
Martin then got involved in the Lifetime Legacies program, which gives dying patients a chance to recount their lives for loved ones to view after their passing.
In the words of the Suncoast Hospice/Empath Health website, teen volunteers “capture the life stories of patients, and assist with interviewing, recording, editing and creating a DVD keepsakes for families.”
Martin would ask hospice patients where they were born, what they learned during their life, what they would have done differently. “Each of their stories was amazing, but different for each patient,” he said.
So, what can patients in their last days teach young people with (hopefully) most of their lives before them?
“They have shared with me that learning in life is endless,” Martin said. “I have learned from patients to always stay positive, to always stay humble, and be aware of all of your experiences.”
Teens who volunteer with hospice don’t have to see the emotional side of it, Martin said.
“When I tell teens I know about hospice, they tell me they don’t want to see anything that will make them nervous or scared. I explain to them that there are a lot of tasks in the background that help patients.”
Still there is no substitute when it comes to serving the patients directly, Martin said.
“They have given me an insight on what they enjoyed about their lives and what advice they have for the younger generation,” he said. “I have found they have a sense of gratitude for all they have experienced in their lives.”
Patients and families write to thank the teens often.
A hospice patient who used email to communicate with friends and relatives, wrote: “I greatly appreciate your help in getting my Verizon password problem solved during your visit on April 3.”
“We are so grateful to you for selecting such wonderful teen volunteers to direct, tape and edit the Lifetime Legacy video for our mother,” the family of a former hospice patient wrote the teens.
And, this one, thanking three young ladies for their help:
“We commend the teens for the care and concern you show for our elders,” another family wrote. “Please accept our gratitude for these remarkable young women.”