Disability doesn’t limit man’s ability to volunteer

Harold Hatton is ready to go home.

Perched on the end of his bed he’s just waiting for a Royal Victoria Hospital (RVH) volunteer to arrive to porter him to the main entrance. With much gusto, his porter arrives and that’s when the confusion begins. The volunteer is 20-year-old Jordan Downing and he’s entered Hatton’s room pushing himself in a wheelchair.

The senior, thinking the volunteer has brought him his ride to the front entrance, steadies himself and prepares to replace Downing in the chair. Realizing what is happening Downing quickly takes control of the situation.

“Oh, you need a wheelchair,” chirps Downing. “I’ll be right back sir.”

And with that the young man swings his wheelchair around and leaves the room with the same gusto he entered with. “That’s cool,” says the senior, who sits back down on the edge of his bed to wait. “I was waiting for a wheelchair to arrive and of course I naturally assumed the one he was riding in was for me. That is amazing that someone with an obvious disability is helping people in this way,” says Hatton.

Amazing to some, but not to Downing.

That’s just who he is. Downing, in a wheelchair because of Spina Bifida, joined RVH’s ‘Blue Brigade’ as a porter on the information desk nine months ago. Every Friday, without exception, the young man takes up his post at the main entrance, ready, willing and able to help all who enter the hospital. He chose the evening shift because Monday to Friday, during the day, he volunteers at a local retirement home.

Downing is just one of 1,000 people who volunteer at RVH. These volunteers, known as the ‘Blue Brigade’ because of the striking blue vest they wear, range in age from16 to 90. They work closely with staff in 96 departments of the hospital. They are carefully matched by skill level and interest to the department in which they volunteer. Val Bennett, Director of Volunteer Resources, and her team do the matching, and there was no question about where to place Downing.

“Jordan (Downing) just has this shining light that surrounds him and it is this aura that makes  him so engaging to all the people he helps and volunteers alongside,” says Bennett. “The fact that he has triumphed above his own disability is very inspiring.”

Hatton can attest to that. Once Downing arrived back to his room, Hatton was again surprised to learn that he would be pushed down to the main entrance in his wheelchair by someone also in a wheelchair. And as he made his way down to the first floor from the fourth Hatton couldn’t stop singing Downing’s praises. “I didn’t know how he was going to do this, but he did. It is incredible.”

Once down to the main level, Downing helps Hatton retrieve his refund for his television rental, and bids him adieu. “It makes me feel pretty good to be able to help people.  If someone has had a bad day and I can talk to them and cheer them up, that just feels good,” says Downing. “The way I look at it, I have had a lot of people help me during my life and struggles, I might as well get started now paying back what I owe other people.” “And”, chuckles Downing, “the upper body workout is good for me.”

Once RVH’s Phase 1 Expansion opens in early 2012, the hospital will require more volunteers like Downing. In fact, an additional 250 volunteers will be needed, especially for the Simcoe Muskoka Regional Cancer Centre and the emergency department, which will triple in size. Many of the volunteers at RVH are from the retirement population, however Bennett believes that trend is changing.

“We now have a lot of stay-at-home-moms who volunteer in preparation for when they will re-enter the workforce,” says Bennett. “We also have a high school co-op program which gives the students an opportunity to experience the health care field and explore the option of continuing on with us as volunteers, gaining much valuable experience they can take with them into the workforce. They are our future health care providers.”

For Downing it’s just a matter of no excuses. If anyone would have an excuse not to volunteer it’s Downing, but that’s not the way he thinks. “Volunteering is really a lot of fun and there’s so much to learn. I’m just now able to find my way around here. I’m young and I think that’s the perfect time to volunteer.”

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