Volunteer "Mayor" Cole Smith greets a patient at Children's of Mississippi.
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Blue vests are back: New and seasoned volunteers return, ready to serve

Published on Monday, March 7, 2022

By: Andrea Wright Dilworth,

For nine-and-a-half years, Willie Brown has awakened at 3 a.m. on Mondays to drive from Vaughan to Children’s of Mississippi, where he volunteers from 5:30 a.m. until 3 p.m.  

That stopped abruptly in March of 2020 at the onset of the pandemic when the University of Mississippi Medical Center put a pause on its volunteer program.  

Those 100-mile-long roundtrips resumed right before Christmas, and he couldn’t be happier to be back.   

It’s a humbling experience,” said Brown, 70, who started volunteering after taking an early retirement. “It makes me feel blessed with what I have: My health and my family’s health. 

“Pediatric nurses, therapists and doctors are a special breed. It’s devastating to see some of these kids and their parents, especially those in the NICU or PICU. You see some of these nurses with tears in their eyes. It puts everything in perspective.”  

Brown, in his signature blue volunteer’s vest, is currently primarily stationed in a waiting area, where he helps check patients in through a kiosk and gives directions.  

No matter the assignment, he is there to take some of the pressure off of the staff.  “I get a lot more out of it than I give,” he said.   

Brown is one of about 60 volunteers to return since the pandemic, said Mary Preston Dubberly, volunteer services manager in the Office of Patient Experience.  

Since the pandemic, she said she’s received frequent calls and emails from volunteers asking when they could safely return to UMMC because they missed helping the staff and patients.  

Since some volunteers have not returned for reasons including fear of being in a hospital setting, the office is in a rebuilding phase.  

“UMMC volunteers have a servant’s heart, so they want to help where needed,” she said. “Staff and patients are thrilled to have volunteers return to UMMC. Our volunteers are an integral part of the care team and have hit the ground running.” 

Smith, the self-proclaimed Mayor of UMMC, is a 15-year volunteer of the hospital.

Cole Smith, who has volunteered at Children’s 15 years, said being a small business owner allows him the flexibility to serve three days a week.    

“I always wanted the freedom to be a volunteer, giving of my time,” said Smith, 65, of Jackson. “I knew Cole Smith would never be able to present a big check to Children's Hospital, but what I could offer was my enthusiastic, compassionate time and attention to helping make patients and their families feel me as their friend while inside UMMC. I make them smile, I help them relax, and I remind them how glad we all are they came to Children's Hospital.”  

Smith, the self-proclaimed “Mayor of UMMC” who admits to having a big personality and an even larger ego, said he wanted to entertain people without being a clown.  

Cole Smith, the self-proclaimed Mayor of UMMC and a 15-year volunteer of the hospital, guides patients and their families through the halls of Children's of Mississippi.
Smith guides patients and their families through the halls of Children's of Mississippi.

So, years before the pandemic, he took a handmade ballot box and some ballots he’d printed with him to the Eli Manning Cancer Clinic, where he asked children to vote for him to represent the Children’s Hospital.  

“Little kindergarteners voted with parents’ help and hand printed their names on each ballot,” he explained. “Teenagers thought it to be way cool to vote for me. Mamas cast votes for their tiny infants. 

“Bottom line: I was the majority-elected mayor. I purchased myself an English top hat and a blue satin mayor sash. I swore myself into office shortly after and took over as the imperial maître d of the huge UMMC campus.” 

As “mayor,” Smith is a wayfarer throughout the hospitals, walking the halls from the Wiser entrance to the Eli Manning Clinics to the Cancer Clinic to the Sanderson Tower, and back again, ushering families and visitors to their destinations. Along the way, he explains the easiest way to return to their parked cars and answers any questions.  

“This position gives me the biggest adrenaline rush,” said the mayor, uh, Smith. “All of my endorphins are released. These folks appreciate me. I can't count the number of selfies that the mothers and dads have taken of their princess or prince with the Mayor. I can easily feel their love.” 

The volunteer services program has also welcomed new members to its team, some of whom are employees or students at the hospital.  

Mya Woods, a graduate student in biomedical sciences, volunteers in the reception area of the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit at the Sanderson Tower.
Mya Woods, a graduate student in biomedical sciences, volunteers in the reception area of the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit at the Sanderson Tower.

Mya Woods, 22, a graduate student in biomedical sciences, came aboard in December. So far, she has been assigned to both the Sanderson Tower and the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit, where her responsibilities include helping patients’ families sign in, greeting families and transferring calls and relating information from the front desk to the staff.  

Woods talks with Nicole Little, a hospital technician in the PICU and a volunteer trainer, in the waiting area of the PICU in Sanderson tower at Children's of Mississippi.

The Meridian native, who plans on applying to the School of Medicine, said helping patients, their families, and staff brings her joy. 

“I also receive clinical experience and a view of my possible future,” she said. “I am interested in pediatrics, and when volunteering in the PICU, I often see resident physicians do their rounds and discuss patients’ treatment plans. That is hands down one of the best experiences I’ve received from volunteering, and I am extremely grateful for it. 

“Healthcare professionals are there to take care of the patient, but who is there to help the family during that process while their loved ones are undergoing treatment? Whether it is meaningful conversation or directing them to food and coffee, these interactions are the most meaningful to me, personally.”  

Volunteer Kelsi Mixon greets patients and visitors to the UMMC School of Dentistry.
Volunteer Kelsi Mixon greets patients and visitors to the UMMC School of Dentistry.

Kelsi Mixon, another graduate student in biomedical sciences, was one of the first volunteers to sign up post-pandemic, said Dubberly.  

Mixon, left, greets Sandy Aldy as she arrives for an appointment at the School of Dentistry.

The Greenville native, 24, who is applying for admission to the School of Dentistry, is also serving as a patient greeter there. Volunteering at UMMC is one way that she is able to “pay it forward.”  

“I feel like, even in small ways, I am making a difference,” she said. “The small interactions could calm the nerves of a patient who is on the way to their procedure, or just being a guide to those who are running late and do not know where to go. 

“I am learning that my love for community is far greater than I expected. In my short time volunteering here, I have felt a great sense of family.”  

Dwain Gaddis, a UMMC surgical support technician, is also a volunteer at the hospital.

Dwain Gaddis, 18, one the youngest volunteers, also saw this as an opportunity to pay it forward.   

A part-time surgical support technician at the hospital, he is a pre-nursing student at Mississippi College who is also applying to UMMC’s School of Nursing.  

Gaddis said he wanted to volunteer at UMMC for two reasons:   

 Gaddis talks with visitor Beverly Horton in the lobby of the hospital.

“By the hospital having a lot of patients, it means that I get to interact with a lot more people than I would if I chose to volunteer at a smaller hospital,” said the Carthage native. “Another reason is because I was a patient here when I was younger, and volunteers made me feel comfortable during my stay. So, I said to myself, ‘Why not return the favor to other patients at this hospital?’ 

“Sometimes, patients are down and they just need to have a conversation with a person to help uplift their spirit. You never know what a person is going through nowadays.” 

UMMC is fortunate to have volunteers who are dedicated and passionate, said Dubberly. They often come in earlier or stay later than their assigned shifts, and look for ways to help employees. They have also learned how to be the point of contact at the front desks and solve problems in the reception areas.  

Dubberly said more volunteers are needed in the Children’s Hospital, the University Hospital, and the School of Dentistry weekdays from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.  

“We are learning it takes time to rebuild a health system volunteer program, especially if you want to do it right,” said Dubberly.  

UMMC volunteers must be at least 18 years old, COVID-19 vaccinated, have a TB test and be able to pass a background check. The application can be found on the Volunteer Services page.