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Conversations with the Inspiring Barb Farmer

Today we’d like to introduce you to Barb Farmer.

Thanks for sharing your story with us Barb. So, let’s start at the beginning and we can move on from there.
I am asked many times “how do you find your passion?” I read a story about a young woman who was facing many challenges but yet was determined to remain upbeat. “I don’t care what I’m doing, my goal is to have fun wherever I am and to do the best at whatever I’m doing,” she said. I was inspired by her and that comment soon became my life’s mantra.

My husband and I both had successful careers. He traveled and worked weekends and that meant we had little time to see each other. We decided it might be best if I took a break from working so when he was in town, we could spend more time together. I had always been in the workforce, and a type A personality. After all the sock drawers were sorted, ceiling fans dusted, and photos organized, I realized I needed more mental stimulation in my life. A good friend recommended that I consider volunteering at the local hospital. I didn’t even know you could volunteer at a hospital, but this is where my life changed and where I found my passion.

When I was very young, I was hospitalized for many months, in a foreign country, miles from my family. My dad was in the military so he would visit when work allowed and my mom had two other children at home who needed her attention. Even today, I can close my eyes and remember the feelings I had of being lonely and frightened. The last place I ever considered wanting to be was in a hospital, but I was determined that now might be the time to overcome those fears.

I’ve always had the ability to empathize with others (kids, dogs, seniors, teens, etc.) and I believe it to be my spiritual gift. My philosophy is: God gave me this amazing opportunity to be here on earth, I should do as much as I can with that gift. From the moment I started my hospital journey, I understood the amazing opportunity to help people. Helping became a puzzle. What does this person need? If they are acting upset, what is it really about? Are they frightened? Are they lonely? Are they confused? I soon discovered that even the smallest offering was often accepted as a memorable and welcoming gesture – a fresh cup of coffee for a friend or family member while they were waiting on test results in the emergency room, treating the poor and disenfranchised with dignity and respect, and encouraging a new mom “you got this!”, sitting down and having a conversation with a lonely patient, even holding the hand of a dying patient who had no one. I loved every minute of it. I felt like I found my place. I applied for the position of Manager of Volunteer Services Department and they hired me! I decided that if I could get this much satisfaction out of helping others, maybe I could recruit people and teach them how they could positively impact people and families and together we could change our little piece of the world.

I was fortunate to find like-minded people who wanted to be part of this kindness movement – it was contagious! We had young people with computer skills, highly skilled professional adults, people with dogs, people who wanted nothing more than to rock babies born addicted, people who could drive people in the golf cart, and more. Good people were everywhere I looked, they were just like me, just wanting to give back and make a difference and I welcomed every one of them. We started out with 200 volunteers at 1 hospital and grew to 770 volunteers at 2 hospitals. We rolled up our sleeves and started an 11-year journey of epic proportions.

On my first day as the Manager, I received a phone call from a nurse who had a teenage son looking for volunteer hours. We soon realized that many young people were in need of volunteer service hours, so we created the Summer Volunteen program. We wanted to not only welcome teens into volunteering, but to feed their volunteer spirit and teach them the value of a sacred encounter with patients. We also focused on teaching them critical thinking, job skills, and in turn, they taught us to effective technology for the program. It was a mutually beneficial relationship.

We were all extremely proud of the process we created that gave every student equal opportunity to become a Summer Volunteer. Each student submitted an application which included an essay, letters of recommendation and a copy of their GPA. The cutoff date for submitting applications was firm-no exceptions were made. This was our way of communicating that in the real world, you are rewarded for submitting on time. Our 14-18-year-olds, from very diverse backgrounds, were invited to behavioral interviews before a 3-member panel (consisting of hospital staff, community members, educators, etc.). One question we asked was, “Please tell us about a time you had a difficult situation and how you handled it.” One of my favorite responses came from Justin. Justin shared that he is a first-generation immigrant whose family didn’t have much money, so he worked in the school cafeteria to pay for lunch and earn spending money. He was also the captain of the high school soccer team and one day, a new student came to try out, but kids made fun of him because he was using really old equipment. Justin went to a used sports equipment company and purchased cleats and gave them to him the next day. The young man said, “You can’t even imagine what that means to me. My family came here from war-torn Syria and we left everything behind, everything, including my brother. For you to welcome me to America like this is just unbelievable.” Even what seems like the smallest act, made a huge difference.

Our program became so successful, one year we had 425 applications for 80 positions. Our kids were getting scholarships from major universities and one even received a scholarship from the Gates Millennium Foundation (she stated in her thank you letter that she felt she received it because of the leadership skills she learned while serving in our program). Over 40 students, went off to college, finished their degrees and returned as paid staff because of the connection they felt to our hospital mission; we were growing our own employees. My first teen, the one who’s mom called me, grew 2 feet, graduated, did his rotations at our hospital, and became an emergency room physician.

The volunteer program received many accolades including an award from the Arizona Governor and an invitation to Washington DC to brief the White House Office of Public Engagement. We received the Points of Light Service Enterprise Gold Standard seal of approval for our volunteer program (only the 3rd hospital in the country to receive this distinction).

When we met with other hospital volunteer managers, either in Arizona or throughout the country, we would hear that they wanted to start a teen program but really didn’t know where to begin. We were invited to teach a concurrent session at the American Hospital Volunteer Resource Professionals (AHVRP) conference on this topic. I created a program blueprint that was copywritten and trademarked through our corporate intellectual property lawyers then offered to hospitals throughout the country.

We also quickly realized the power of the animal-human connection for both our patients and our staff. But, to get dogs certified (a requirement from the hospital), people in the East Valley had to travel a 70 mile round trip for testing. We decided to sponsor some selected volunteers to become certified trainers and soon we had flooded the East Valley with certified pet therapy groups, not only for our hospitals but as a community service to everyone including Hospice of the Valley, Autism schools, even our hospital competitors. Over 225 animals were certified each year and each of our hospital programs grew to over 40 dogs. Stories about the positive interaction with our dogs started permeating patient surveys, doctors realized the value of the program and gifted monetary donations to the foundation from grateful patients, staff, and physician groups.

It was Innovation in Action. If someone had an idea, there was a volunteer who was willing to help us build it and, the key was, we had fun doing it! Volunteers felt their skills were valued and appreciated. The average length of stay in a volunteer position in the US is six months, our volunteer average length of stay grew to 3.8 years.

Our passion was ignited! We created a veteran visitation program (suicide prevention), a medical equipment lending closet, a scholarship program, we built a healing garden, started a lending book closet, created Voluntechies (students from our teen program who created an app for homebound seniors), funded hospital equipment from proceeds made in our gift shops and much more.

Because of what I learned, I now have a consulting business that helps companies, governments, and nonprofits evaluate and design volunteer programs. I’m also an adjunct faculty member for Arizona State University (ASU), coaching other nonprofits to success with their volunteer programs through the Lodestar Center for Philanthropy and Nonprofit Innovation. My firm has also developed a new program to support the animal-human connection with kids, that we are piloting with our local school district named Dogs In Grade Schools – (DIGS). A source of pride for me is one of my teens recently graduated with a nonprofit degree and was hired by Goodwill Industries, which means we’ve done all of this good work and passed the torch to keep it going.

If you are looking to find your personal passion, start by having fun where ever you are and in whatever you are doing. You might find that your passion lies in ideas you get from your past experiences, either positive or negative. What worked that you can expand upon? What challenges did you face that was painful and could you pave the road so that the next person’s journey is a little easier? Don’t think you have to do it yourself, connect with like-minded people and brainstorm and allow your idea to jump off into a direction that speaks to you. I didn’t start with a passion, I started with a mission and my passion followed. There is incredible value in being of service to others.

“Your thanks is their pay, have you thanked a volunteer today?”

We’re always bombarded by how great it is to pursue your passion, etc. – but we’ve spoken with enough people to know that it’s not always easy. Overall, would you say things have been easy for you?
One of the biggest challenges/obstacles we faced initially was that the staff were so busy, they didn’t think they had time for volunteers. They thought it would fall on them to train and supervise. We had to come up with a way to sell volunteers and train volunteers to be useful and independent. I had one coordinator per hospital, with over 350 volunteers each.

We created Team Leaders – these were volunteers who were willing to go the extra mile and welcome, train and follow up with new volunteers. When a new volunteer arrived, we had a job description and training competencies specific for that job (our Team Leaders helped us develop these). Each volunteer would be trained and then they would receive a copy to keep in their pocket. Volunteers received a minimum of two training sessions. If they needed more, they received more. Sometimes even that was a challenge for some volunteers because we know that some people learn better from one person vs another. So, we would change trainers. Once the volunteer felt comfortable and confident, that would be the only time we would leave them on their own. They always had their training competencies to refer to for specific duties, never having to interrupt the staff. Their Team Leaders stayed in contact regularly via email.

Another obstacle we faced, was that sometimes people weren’t nice to our volunteers and they would be trained and leave immediately. We began tracking which departments were turning over volunteers more frequently and met with the department to educate them on techniques for retaining volunteers. We also developed a mandatory 30-minute staff training program for any new personnel/department which covered things like: what do volunteers expect on their first day? How to cost-effectively thank a volunteer. Ways to make your volunteers feel like part of the team. One Nursing Director told me that she learned a lot from that training and that her volunteers were so dedicated, that if the hospital caught on fire, the last one out the door would be one of her volunteers, and they would make sure that the door was closed behind them.

When I started, I was afraid that I might not have all the answers. It became evident, quickly, that I didn’t need all the answers, there were many people who have experience and advice. Listen to suggestions, maybe pray a little, and then come up with a decision. Not knowing is okay.

Building relationships is important in your career when we were able to create positive relationships. Trust in people and let them help you. We couldn’t have managed all of these volunteers without our Team Leaders and they felt empowered.

So let’s switch gears a bit and go into B. Farmer Consulting story. Tell us more about it.
Because of all of the good fortune (and hard work), I’ve had to create nationally recognized volunteer programs, my passion is to help other nonprofits, government agencies and local municipal agencies to make sure their volunteer programs are as successful. Retention, recruitment, and return on investment are essential components. I will always be creating a project or two of my own that I’m passionate about, probably helping veterans, kids, seniors or the homebound.

It would be great to hear about any apps, books, podcasts or other resources that you’ve used and would recommend to others.
My favorite book is called “Practicing the Presence of People – how we learn to love” by Mike Mason and recently I’ve been listening to Brene Brown. I’ve volunteered for TedxGilbert the last two years because I’ve found it inspirational and insightful.

Contact Info:

  • Email: bfarmer5@cox.net

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