Jenna Clayton knows how important a friendly face can be during tough times.
She spent much of her childhood in the operating room or recovering, enduring as many as 50 operations before the age of 14, bouncing from one hospital to another. Today, she’s in the Levine Children’s Hospital, but now she’s there on her own terms.
Clayton, who has Down syndrome and was born with an incomplete esophagus, is one of the hospital’s nearly 350 volunteers. She and her mother, Mary Clayton, remember a time not too long ago when they were happy to see the smile of a hospital volunteer eager to help them through their struggle. Mary is proud her daughter is now returning the favor.
“Just to have a bright face and someone to come into the room and check on us is important,” Mary Clayton, formerly a nurse herself, said. “I can’t even begin to tell you how meaningful that is as a parent when you have a child who is ill. It’s very special. The warmth, the love, that’s an addition to you as a parent.”
Jenna Clayton, now 23 and a resident of the Cotswold area, spends her Fridays handing out magazines to children and their families during their visit to Levine Children’s Hospital. She’s been there nearly two years now, and as the hospital celebrates its 5-year anniversary this month, Mary Clayton said her daughter plans on sticking around to continue helping the hospital grow.
“It is a huge part of Jenna’s life,” her mother said. “She looks forward to it as much as anything in her life right now.”
In her time away from the hospital, Jenna Clayton works with children who have Down syndrome, rides horses at the Misty Meadows therapeutic riding center and dances with the Allegra Foundation. “She’s a busy young woman,” Mary Clayton said.
That’s the case for many of the volunteers at the children’s hospital. Though doctors, nurses and hospital staff do much of the heavy lifting each day, volunteer manager Tewanna Brazzley said the place couldn’t function without individuals donating their time. She should know, since she started as a volunteer at the children’s hospital herself.
“I don’t know if the volunteers really understand the benefits they provide to our patients,” Brazzley said, adding volunteers are a key aspect of the overall service patients receive at the hospital. “Our volunteers come in, put that icing on the cake and even put the cherry on top of the ice cream.”
Volunteers do a little bit of everything – from handing out magazines to playing with children during their downtime and even providing things like toothbrushes for families who forget the essentials when coming for a long stay at the hospital.
“You have some patients that are here and their family members are working during the day or aren’t in town, and our volunteers will come in and read to them, maybe play with them … (and) help make the stay more comfortable while they’re here.”
Jenna Clayton is putting in her time as a volunteer, but she hopes to climb the ladder one day much like Brazzley did and become a full-time staffer at the hospital. She’s got a special understanding of what the kids are going through, and hopes to continue being a special help for families who may be going through one of their darkest hours.
“She knows what she’s been through, and she would tell you that giving back is a huge part of her life,” Mary Clayton said.
The Levine Children’s Hospital is located at 1000 Blythe Blvd. Find more information at www.levinechildrenshospital.org.