For parents of children with special needs, the physical, emotional, and financial demands can sometimes be overwhelming. COMFORT (College of Medicine Friends Offer Respite Time) is a program run by medical students and undergrads at the University of Vermont through which student volunteers spend a few hours each week with a child with special needs. Not only is this an educational experience for students, but through these visits, the child has a chance to spend time with a new, responsible friend, and the child’s family has the chance to do whatever they need to do to improve their lives, whether that’s exercise, run errands, or just take a nap.
Tamar Goldberg ’15 started COMFORT three years ago, inspired by a visitor to the College of Medicine who talked about about her struggle to maintain her emotional and physical health while raising two daughters with cystic fibrosis. The program has grown since that time: Over the past three years about 35 students have volunteered, and COMFORT now provides respite to over 20 families.
The goal of COMFORT is to promote the health and overall well-being of the entire family through respite while creating an opportunity for volunteer students to build personal relationships with local families. From the inspiring but sometimes disheartening stories of families advocating for improved educational services for their children, diagnostic testing, coordinated care, and alternative management approaches, volunteers see first-hand the realities that come with navigating our complex health care system and how coping with chronic illness pervades everyday family life. In addition to providing respite care, volunteers meet to reflect on experiences, and we have developed a curriculum with Dr. Jill Rinehart to learn about the importance of coordinated multidisciplinary care for these children, and about the medical home model for care delivery.
Every year, COMFORT volunteers come together to tell their stories and share what they have learned. Tracey DaFonte is a second-year medical student who has volunteered for the program and now serves as an organizational leader for COMFORT. She became involved because of a prior experience with someone who could have benefitted from respite care, and now regularly visits a local family with two children, one of whom suffers from a genetic disorder.
“After each week of sitting through lectures and labs, it was nice to drive to their home and offer the family some time for respite,” she says. “They often did things around the house that needed to be done – for example laundry or cooking – or laid down for a much needed rest. Meanwhile, I colored with the family’s youngest child, made animals with play-doh, or planted lavender flowers. This opportunity to help this family also felt like respite for me as it broke me away from my studies and put me back out into the “real world,” where I could engage with others and work with children, which is one of my favorite volunteer activities. I am grateful for the opportunity to impact their lives, both in giving a child the attention they crave and offering the emotionally and physically exhausted parent some rest. This experience will help impact my future clinical decisions, as I can gain a better understanding of the complexities of family life outside of a medical office.”
Here is what Sarah Kelso, a second-year medical student and another organizational leader for COMFORT, has learned from her experience:
“I think the biggest lesson that I will take away from participating with COMFORT is how easy it can be to make a difference in people’s lives. I applaud Tamar because she came up with such a simple idea, matching students who naturally want to care for and help others with families who
simply need a little extra help. It’s brilliant! All this program needs is interest from students and families and some individuals with great organizational skills, and voila! You have a program that has had such a great impact on families in our community. Our role as physicians will be to address each patient’s individual needs, but it will also be our duty to positively impact both health care and our own communities. COMFORT has shown me just what that looks like.”
If you are a medical or undergraduate student at the University of Vermont and would like to volunteer for this program, please email UVMcomfort@gmail.com. If you are a member of a family that could use our help, or if you know of a family, please inquire at the same email, UVMcomfort@gmail.com. We love to serve as many volunteers and families as we can.