Karl's volunteer staff leaves lasting impact at St. Francis Hospital

BY Wendy Pierman Mitzel
Special to the Hartford Business Journal

Tobye Karl (left) shown helping out with a food bank effort at St. Francis Hospital and Medical Center.
Category: Healthcare Staff

Tobye Karl

Employer: St. Francis Hospital and Medical Center

Title: Director of Volunteer Services

When social workers at St. Francis Hospital and Medical Center discovered a patient might not be able to give her children a Christmas tree this year, they called Tobye Karl.

Within the hour, Karl, director of volunteer services, had secured a tree and delivered the good news.

"I don't know if it's in my job description but I handle that sort of stuff all the time," she laughed.

Karl is the go-to person at St. Francis Hospital when there's a problem no one quite knows how to figure out.

"People often call and say 'you're my last resort,' " Karl said. "That's a challenge I'll take on."

Karl has been taking on those challenges for the past 33 years at St. Francis. Armed with a background in public relations, she started volunteering with the Mt. Sinai Women's Auxiliary where she learned about the importance of infant safety seats, spearheading a campaign that included informational signage on Hartford busses, a program for auto dealers to donate infant carriers and options for new mothers leaving the hospital to rent the carriers.

The group even persuaded the state legislature to pass a bill for child safety.

"That made me realize the impact volunteers could have, up until then I had been a working woman and didn't understand," she said.

Soon after, she was asked to lead the volunteers at St. Francis Hospital. Since then, the number of volunteers at the hospital has grown to near 800 and volunteering has become almost a profession, with 89 job responsibilities. From acting as fall-risk monitors, responding to patient needs, or even taking on care of memorial gardens, the volunteer program has grown and changed to become an organization the hospital can't do without.

"We spend a lot of time making the patient experience better," Karl said. "One of the things important to my work is to make a match between the volunteer and the program so it's a win-win."

Not only that, hospital visitors and even staff have someone to rely on for assistance. For instance, when doctors realize patients don't have proper equipment at home or have a non-medical need that impacts their health, they now have a corps of people who have the time and capability to help. The doctors can then move on to other patients.

"As health care has changed and there are so many pressures — time and money and energy — it's so nice to know people in the hospital have a heart," she added. "They still want to make things better, big or small."

One of the biggest programs focuses on the smallest of patients. Karl brought the Books for Babies initiative to St. Francis Hospital in 2003 and watched the program reach significant success. According to Karl, 99 percent of all new mothers leaving the hospital are visited by trained volunteers who go to the home with a literacy packet, books and the message that parents should read to their babies from day one.

Kyn Tolson, executive director of Read to Grow and the Books for Babies program, said her staff points to Karl as an ideal volunteer coordinator.

"She is 110 percent heart, mind and soul involved in her work," Tolson said.

Thanks to Karl's involvement in a recent St. Francis Women's Auxiliary children's book drive, close to 10,000 books were donated, allowing Books to Babies volunteers to offer books to siblings as well.

"It's wonderful to have such a supply to draw from," Tolson said.

Just as important as the access to books is the availability of a volunteer to encourage parents and teach parents reading techniques.

"We're making a major impact turning around the literacy rate in the state of Connecticut," Karl said.

Karl is also in charge of the hospital flu vaccine campaign. She organized the flu vaccinations for 11,000 hospital employees and volunteers, pulling together 30 retired nurses, and dozens of volunteer clerical staff over the course of a few weeks to ensure everyone is cared for and protected.

Karl credits the hospital leadership with inviting her to the table and constantly recognizing the importance of volunteers. And she credits the volunteers for understanding how valuable they've become.

"It's not necessarily monetary, but I can assure you every volunteer here is getting a reward of some kind," Karl said.