New friends reflect on 113 years of volunteer service

Earlier this year, Jean Bensdorf was having breakfast in the dining room of her retirement facility in downtown Chicago when she noticed another resident wearing a medal commemorating her years of service to the Founders’ Board of Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago.

“I walked up to her and asked her who she was,” says Jean, a 49-year hospital volunteer who serves once a week in the hospital’s ParentWISE® (Parent Wisdom In Shared Experience®) program. “And I soon found out!”

The woman wearing the medal was Peggy Carr, a member of the Founders’ Board for 64 years. “We immediately started talking about all the people we knew in common, and we quickly became friends,” says Peggy, the Founders’ Board’s longest- serving member.

The rewards of working with families

Jean and Peggy have served the patients and families at Lurie Children’s in a variety of roles. While Jean has worked directly with patient families, Peggy has worn numerous hats as a Founders’ Board volunteer. She’s served in advocacy and fundraising capacities, and for many years volunteered at the Board’s White Elephant resale shop. Peggy also worked with patient families in such programs as social services, recreational therapy and hospital services.

As a ParentWISE® volunteer in the hospital’s outpatient oncology unit, Jean helps families navigate the hospital experience from the perspective of a parent who has walked in their shoes. Sometimes, she says, the best help is just lending a sympathetic ear to families under stress.

“My goal is to make their day a little easier in any way I can,” says Jean, whose son, Bob, was treated for a blood disorder at Lurie Children’s as a child, spending two years in and out of the hospital. “Bob’s doctor was exceptional, and I fell in love with the hospital. Once he got better, I decided I wanted to be part of the hospital, and applied to be a volunteer.”

I love meeting the families and helping them if I can. I remember a woman from South Korea who didn’t speak much English and was worried about her child, who was undergoing heart surgery. I took her under my wing, and after her child was discharged, she came back to see me quite often. In fact, she gave me a memento with Korean symbols on it!”

A born volunteer

Peggy grew up influenced by her mother, who volunteered with orphans. Her first volunteer experience was working in a hospital nursery in New York when she was 16. Peggy joined the Founders’ Board’s predecessor, the Woman’s Board of what was then Children’s Memorial Hospital in 1950. The Board was renamed in 2007, and remains Lurie Children’s most enduring philanthropic partner. In just the last 10 years, its members have raised more than $20 million through a variety of fundraising efforts and personal philanthropy.

“When I started volunteering at the hospital, there wasn’t a whole lot for the children to do,” says Peggy. “So I would read them stories and act out the parts. I remember one day I was reading ‘Three Billy Goats Gruff,’ and was acting out the part of the troll while squatting under a washbasin. Just then, the chief-of-staff came by leading ‘grand rounds,’ with an entourage of residents following him. He looked down at me and said, ‘What’s happening here?’”

The hospital program closest to Peggy’s heart is Garden Play, a horticultural therapy program she created at the hospital’s Garden Court in conjunction with the Chicago Botanic Garden. Over the years, thousands of children have benefitted from their exposure to a little bit of nature at the hospital.

“I remember one little boy who was autistic, and hadn’t spoken a word in the two weeks he was at the hospital,” says Peggy. “They brought him in,  and when a volunteer asked him what color paper cup he wanted to plant his flowers in, he answered, “Red!” He planted one cup of flowers after another, and when it was time for him to leave he smiled and waved goodbye. The medical staff couldn’t believe it!”

A legacy of giving

Through Lurie Children’s Foundation’s Planned Giving program, Peggy has made the hospital a beneficiary of her estate, meaning that her commitment to helping children and their families will continue long beyond her lifetime.

“Supporting the hospital is so important, because when children don’t grow up healthy, it affects our entire society,” she says. “Ultimately, a lot more money is spent on the health of older people if they didn’t have proper care when they were children.”

As veteran volunteers who have worked both directly with patients and families and behind the scenes to better the lives of children, the two neighbors agree about the rewards of helping others.

“On the days we had horticultural therapy I would be so happy when I came home, having seen how much it had helped children who were really struggling,” says Peggy. “I think volunteers get as much out of the experience as the people they are helping!”