Anything They Need


Volunteers at East Tennessee Children’s Hospital ensure children, families, and staff find home when they walk through the doors

Long before the Hematology and Oncology Clinic at East Tennessee Children’s Hospital begins buzzing for the day, you’ll find Keith Sinclair, cleaning rooms, setting up stations, and doing anything he can to help. 

Keith isn’t a member of the hospital staff, though. He is a volunteer in the clinic, and has been putting in hours there every Tuesday for more than six years.

“I try to offload from the nurses and staff anything where it is appropriate for me to do so,” he says.

As you can imagine, the rules about cleanliness are strict at the hospital—and they are rules Keith takes seriously, as do the other volunteers—but as he explains his duties and what a typical day might look like, it’s clear this is so much more than cleaning to Keith. There’s a deep care for what he does for families, and a big part of that care is simply knowing what they’re going through. Keith is a cancer survivor.

“I’ve traveled that pathway,” he says. “When they start telling me about some experience they’ve had, I’m thinking, yep, went through that myself, and you can really connect with them.”

Keith isn’t allowed to share elements of his personal story with patients or families, but the sheer fact he’s been down that road is enough for him to feel like he can support them in a different way, if only through listening and encouraging them to talk to a nurse. 

“I can sort of read between the lines when I hear them talking. And I think that makes for a good relationship in a sense. I think I’m in the right place to be a volunteer.”

Amidst cleaning and simply being there to help support the people working, waiting, and under treatment, Keith finds ways to “give them a joyful side to a day that is inherently not joyful,” he says. “Stress relief is a big part of the job for the kids and for the parents, and I have to say, if you can make the kids laugh and you can make the kids smile and you have fun, then you can look up and you can see the stress disappear out of the parents’ faces.” 

The Happiest Place in the Hospital

It was about seven years ago that Keith and his wife, Susan, originally connected with Cheryl Allmon, director of Volunteer Services and Programs at the hospital.

“We’re retired, and we don’t have any kids or grandkids,” Susan says, “so we wanted to find a way to give back.”

Cheryl walked them through the options for a volunteer—and there are many. That year, on Christmas Eve, the Sinclairs arrived at the hospital with wrapped sandwiches in hand for the families and staff. Cheryl quickly realized their desire to help and suggested they come volunteer regularly. Keith joined the clinic team, and Susan joined the gift shop, the “happiest place in the hospital,” she says.

“Volunteers find their little niche sometimes, and then they focus on that as much as we are allowed to,” Susan explains. “Cheryl makes sure that we can help out.”

Down in the gift shop, Susan comes to life as people walk through the doors. Employees come for new swag. Family members stop in, on the hunt for a stuffed animal or balloon to bring their family member. A mom stops down having forgotten her hairbrush and is pleasantly surprised when Susan hands one over to her and wishes her a good day.

“Susan has an incredible way of reading those situations, as many of our volunteers do,” Cheryl says, adding that they keep an extra supply of those basic items just in case.

“It’s not all about making money. It’s about making sure our families are taken care of.”

Susan spends her shift ensuring the shop is running smoothly, putting price tags on new items, unloading boxes of inventory, and getting them on the shelves. Sometimes this space is part of that stress relief Keith spoke about, a happy place to find a bit of joy to bring back to a child. 

Whatever It Takes

The volunteer program at Children’s Hospital started back in 1964, but it’s grown significantly since its start. At the helm today is Cheryl, whose connection to the hospital began when her son was five.

“Shortly after we moved here, he got sick. That led us to the emergency department, which led us to being in and out of here over the course of three years with multiple surgeries and procedures. He’s now 28, perfectly healthy, and just got married last year. So not only do I owe a lot to the hospital, but I have a very deep appreciation for the volunteers.”

Cheryl never intended to join the team, but when she spotted an ad for a part-time volunteer coordinator, she knew it was her next move. She’s been here for more than 18 years doing what she calls, “the best job in the entire world. You can’t help but fall in love with the mission of Children’s Hospital.”

Today Cheryl leads a team of 326 active volunteers, many of whom do at least one shift weekly. They volunteer in a variety of capacities for the hospital once they go through their application process, which includes a lengthy onboarding. Some of the volunteers are forward facing with patients, like Keith, Susan, and those at the info desk. Others prefer to be behind the scenes and clean bathrooms, fill the food pantry, and do landscaping. A popular volunteer opportunity is being a cuddler in the NICU, “the coveted role,” Cheryl laughs.

Evelyn Coleman is one of the cuddlers, but she started volunteering in the gift shop, like Susan. She’s at the hospital two days a week now, one shift in the gift shop and the other in the NICU, “because what we get back in return, it’s hard to describe that feeling knowing you’re helping,” she says. “You see those kids’ faces and parents thanking you and the staff so appreciative of you being there. That’s worth more than money. That’s the payment right there.”

Evelyn, Susan, and Keith are all prime examples of just how involved a volunteer at Children’s Hospital can be. Aside from the gift shop, NICU, and clinic, volunteers also participate in fundraising activities, like Fantasy of Trees or park cars at UT football games. They sit on the Volunteer Leadership Council, which meets every other month to

discuss ways to raise funds for the hospital. It’s Cheryl’s job to know who she can count on, whether that’s an individual volunteer or a group from a business in the community that’s expressed an interest in helping.

“Anything they need,” Susan says.

While some volunteers are retired, many are not. “They have full-time jobs, and yet they find time in that very busy week, every week to spend at least four to five hours a week at Children’s Hospital,” Keith says.

Even for young volunteers, it often leads to so much more. “It’s surprising how many of our employees started as volunteers,” Cheryl says. “We currently have two physicians who started as teen volunteers with us. They were just in high school at the time.”

Natalia Havasy, Children’s Hospital Marketing Director, says the hospital gives away $60 million in free care each year, “but we can’t do that with staff alone and give them that same experience.”

The time spent volunteering means that the money saved on this extra support can go back into the mission.

“Her team sees a need, brings that need, takes that burden off of the family, and then it’s just so many little emotional touch points like that, which makes their experience the best one here possible.”

All In

In 2023, volunteers logged 38,433 hours at Children’s Hospital. Amidst those hours were moments that volunteers will never forget, moments that define their why.

A child’s smile as they bang the gong to celebrate getting to go “off therapy” after watching them battle cancer for years. The hug received around a volunteer’s leg by a little one who decided to call them “papaw” as their parents look on laughing. The wave of relief that settles over a mother’s face by a simple hairbrush gifted to her in the gift shop. The couple getting married in the NICU hall after staff and volunteers brought everything they could together to make it beautiful. Each one of these moments is what keeps volunteers showing up.

Later this summer, Keith and Susan will host their second wine dinner to raise funds for the hospital. “We raised $50,000 last year in one evening,” Susan says. This year, the goal is to double that fundraising. And it’s all for the love of East Tennessee Children’s Hospital.

“We just love the hospital. We love the fact that it serves only children. We’re proud of the fact that they are one of a small number of children’s hospitals in the United States that still is independent, freestanding,” Susan says. “And, you know, our goal is to help them stay that way. However we can help.”

You can learn more about some of the work East Tennessee Children’s Hospital does here. If you’d like to support Children’s Hospital’s mission, you can donate using our Top Chefs link here.

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