Volunteering a ‘healthy’ choice for teens

An interest in medicine and a desire to help others brought two Wilton teens to the Western Connecticut Health Network’s Summer Youth Volunteer Program.

Emily Sklar, 18, and Carlos Hernandez, 19, were among more than 100 who took part in the eight-week program that provides hands-on healthcare experience to 16- through 23-year-olds interested in the field by exposing them to a medical environment, while making a contribution to their communities.

For Carlos, who worked with Danbury Hospital’s EMS and physical therapy units, things got off to a much more dramatic start than he could have imagined.

“My very first day of volunteering there was a simulated school shooting,” he said. “We went to a school in Danbury and there were all these kids that were being painted in makeup as if they were hurt,” he said.

“My first day was really crazy. I got to see how the cops would react to a real situation. I saw how seriously they take their jobs and the level of responsibility they have.”

After that, things settled into more of a routine as he was occupied with mostly office work for four hours a day, two days a week, for six weeks. For the EMS unit he took registrations for EMS classes and scanned them into the computer. For the physical therapy office he worked on scheduling.

“I’m a math major, but beyond that I have no idea what I want to do,” said Carlos, who will be a sophomore at UConn in Storrs. “I always had an interest in physical therapy and was always interested in the way the body works. I thought volunteering would give me an idea how a hospital works, to see the way it functions, to get a clearer idea what I want to do.”


Emily, a rising senior at the Jewish High School of Connecticut in Stamford, knows she wants to go into medicine. Instead of working in a hospital, she chose to work in two medical offices associated with the health network. One focused on diabetes and nutrition and the other on endocrinology. She worked four hours a day, two days a week for five weeks.

Emily spent last summer on a research project at Brandeis University and decided this year she wanted a more hands-on approach to medicine, a field she hopes to pursue after graduation. Her work was “more behind-the-scenes than you would experience during a regular doctor’s visit,” she said.

Her work included setting up exam rooms, handling some paperwork, and doing whatever the doctors and nurses needed her to do. Although she had little interaction with patients, she said “by helping the doctors and the front desk, you are helping the patients by making things go smoothly.”

The experience, she said, “was really great. I proved I was interested in the field. I felt it was very rewarding.”

A happy surprise, Emily said, was being able to establish a collegial relationship with the people she worked with.

“I didn’t think in such a short time it would be a friendly environment. I made a closer connection to the people than I thought,” she said.

Emily’s main interest is the heart, but since there were no opportunities in that area she chose nutrition because when it comes to heart problems, “part of it is being obese, part of it is nutrition.”

Emily was drawn to the program because “I’ve always wanted a career that’s very rewarding and I find science very interesting.” Her school is very strong on science courses, she said.

A second reason is that “I’ve always been a big advocate for community service,” she said. A senior girl scout, she is working on her Gold Award by making pet food available at Wilton’s food pantry. She is also working on the Congress Gold Medal of Honor which rewards 400 hours of community service during the time a person is 13 to 26.

While Emily has found her career path, Carlos is still undecided.

“With careers, it’s always tough,” he said. “I enjoyed the experience but I don’t know if I got a clearer idea.”

“We need caring and compassionate physicians, nurses, geriatricians, as well as other clinical staff where there is already a shortage of people entering the field,” said Amy Faith Lionheart, manager of volunteer services. “Dipping their toe in the water is a great way to see if this is the environment they would like to go into down the road. Over the years we have had many local students participate in our volunteer program and come back to us to work as a clinician within the hospital.”

Information: wchn.org.