The history of youth volunteers at Women’s College Hospital

A young nurse and her supervisor adjust a bedsheet

This National Volunteer Week we recognize and celebrate our incredible volunteers who support Women’s College Hospital (WCH) through service and fundraising. Volunteers have been making a difference in the lives of WCH patients and hospital staff since 1915!

One special group of volunteers that has played an important role at WCH for over fifty-five years is youth volunteers. The first group of teenage volunteers were welcomed at WCH in the summer of 1966. Affectionately called candy stripers – named for their red and white striped pinafores – this group of young women were responsible for helping in a variety of hospital departments including in the patient wards and in the newborn nursery.

a young volunteer works at a desk

To attract young volunteers, WCH promoted its new candy striper program on the radio and at local high schools. According to hospital’s official candy striper manual, candy stripers were to be “dignified, pleasant and quietly efficient.” Those interested in volunteering attended a “Get-Acquainted” party and then were required to complete a home-nursing course with the Canadian Red Cross. Candy stripers committed to volunteering at WCH throughout the summer months with a set shift of 10:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m.

WCH’s candy stripers wore the traditional red and white striped pinafore; however, caps were only given to those who completed over 60 hours of volunteer service. The main duties of candy stripers included helping inpatients pack and unpack their bags, passing out menus and carrying food trays, running small errands for patients such as getting newspapers and stamps from the hospital lobby, taking patients for walks in the hallways and playing cards with them, and delivering flower bouquets to patient rooms.

At the end of the summer, candy stripers and their mothers were invited to the hospital for a coffee and dessert party where caps and service pins were presented.

By the early 1980s, as more young men became interested in volunteering at WCH, the candy striper program evolved into a summer youth volunteer program. WCH then continued to find creative ways to increase the number of volunteer opportunities available to young people year-round. In March 1984, a high school co-op program operating through the WCH Volunteer Department was established in partnership with local school boards. However, the summer youth volunteer program, by far attracted the largest number of young people.

two young volunteers read through textbooks and take notes

Operating in July and August, the summer youth volunteer program welcomed between 100-200 young people each year. They volunteered in various hospital departments including admitting, physiotherapy, x-ray, outpatient, urgent care, and the nursery. The youth volunteers also played an important role in helping to organize fundraising events in the hospital lobby such as book sales, craft sales, barbeques, and popcorn carts. In the 1990s, the summer program even published its own newsletter called “The Summer Scoop.” A Youth Volunteer Appreciation Party concluded the end of each summer session.

While over the last two years, volunteer opportunities for young people at WCH have been limited due to Covid restrictions, WCH’s Volunteer Services Manager, Henrietta DeWolfe was happy to report that this summer the hospital will be welcoming between 40-50 college and university students. According to DeWolfe, many of these young people chose to volunteer at WCH this summer because of their interest in health equity or their future ambitions of working in medicine or health research. Some even chose WCH because they were born here!

Volunteering at WCH enables young people to gain new skills and experiences, make new friends (both young and old!), and provide them with a sense of accomplishment. For more than fifty-five years, their enthusiasm and dedication has not only benefitted the hospital and its patients, but also those volunteers and hospital staff who have had the pleasure to work alongside them. This National Volunteer Week we celebrate all the volunteers who make a positive difference at WCH!