A Warm Welcome

Gretchen Elsner-Sommer
Volunteer Gretchen Elsner-Sommer (above) uses her past experiences as a bed and breakfast owner to welcome patients to the Cancer Center.
Photo by Edda Pacifico

Volunteer opportunities abound at the Cancer Center

Gretchen Elsner-Sommer enjoys welcoming people, whether it is into her home in Ann Arbor, her former bed and breakfast in Illinois or the University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center. At 66, this breast cancer survivor volunteers at the Cancer Center every week hoping to make at least one cancer patient's day a little brighter.

"My job is to help them feel more at ease and get them where they need to be," says Elsner-Sommer, who works as a patient guide. "I love getting people talking about something else besides what they're going through, even if it's just for a few minutes."

Elsner-Sommer decided to become a Cancer Center volunteer after her own cancer experience, which began in the late 1990s.

"I know what it's like to walk into the building and not know where the heck you're going. I can really relate to that and help patients feel more comfortable. People are so grateful to have someone smile at them who's not a doctor."

Elsner-Sommer has survived stage 1 breast cancer on two occasions. In addition to swimming and sticking to a mainly raw food diet, volunteering is part of her recovery. She said it lifts her spirits each week as she aims to give back.

Gretchen Elsner-Sommer in her back yard
To stay active and healthy, Elsner-Sommer swims, journals and studies genealogy
Photo by Edda Pacifico

"As a patient, I'd see these older women volunteers telling people where their appointments were. It was a great image before me to see them healthy and active."

In her spare time, Elsner-Sommer writes and studies genealogy. She's been gathering facts on the women in her family since she moved from Illinois to Ann Arbor in the mid-90s with her husband, David. To welcome their family, they built a guest cottage behind their home, which also houses the guest book from Elsner-Sommer's former bed and breakfast.

Mary McCully, the program coordinator for the Cancer Center's Volunteer and Community Resources program, welcomes all volunteers and can help those who are interested determine what role is the match best for them. She suggests visiting mCancer.org/volunteer to get a sense of the wide variety of volunteer opportunities available to students, former patients, their families and community members.

"All our volunteers come to the Cancer Center for a specific orientation. As part of training, you might shadow a current volunteer in an area for several weeks to get comfortable in the role. Our volunteers typically come in one time a week for a 3-4 hour shift."

The University of Michigan Health System, including the Cancer Center, asks all volunteers to commit for six months.

"No matter what their role, our volunteers give back through the goodness of their hearts," McCully says. "I don't think they realize how much of a difference they make in a patient's day. I'm very appreciative of those in our community who volunteer their time."

Volunteer opportunities at the Cancer Center include:
  • The Patient Education Resource Center (PERC)
  • The Courtesy Center desk
  • Patient guides in the lobby
  • The mobile coffee cart (offering complimentary warm beverages to waiting patients)
  • The Warm Fuzzies blanket project
  • And more!

All Cancer Center volunteers receive a special orientation and training to be comfortable in the role. No experience is needed.

Visit mCancer.org/volunteer to learn more.

For Elsner-Sommer, volunteering is "the best thing in the world." She finds strength in the patients she meets and admires their bravery. She uses her past experiences as a bed and breakfast owner to get to know people and can easily recall multiple interactions with patients, from the woman who used to work at Marshall Field's in Chicago during World War II to the young man on crutches with the heavy backpack. She looks forward to seeing the man in the Notre Dame sweatshirt, who always comes to the Cancer Center with one of his many daughters.

"I could tell you a million stories about the people I meet," she laughs. "All you have to do is be nice to people. I get so much more out of volunteering than I give."

More information about Volunteering at the Cancer Center

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Thrive Issue: 
Summer, 2014