All you need is a smile and an unwavering commitment to help the hospitalized. As part of a wider nationwide association, AVO Firenze has been assisting the sick and elderly since 1980 and continues to do so in Florence’s hospitals and care homes.
Stuck in hospital for a fortnight with gastro issues a few years ago, an AVO angel appeared bedside. Neither intrusive, nor too chirpy, the white coat-wearing volunteer simply listened, offered a comforting smile and lifted my spirits. It’s a lasting—and surprisingly happy—memory of a challenging time.
AVO co-coordinators at central Santa Maria Nuova hospital Elena Mostardini and Karen Lorenz explain how things have changed since those pre-pandemic days and the volunteers no longer access the wards. “These days, we’re mostly on the reception desk, offering a smile to patients and guiding them around the maze of one of the oldest hospitals in Europe, so that they can find where they need to go.” At Santa Maria Nuova, AVO also guarantees linguistic assistance to the foreigners who end up in hospital during their time in Florence as well as being called into service by department heads or charge nurses in certain circumstances.
In 2022, following the Covid hiatus, AVO Firenze offered 7,900 hours of free service to the sick and elderly. Sadly, many of the pre-pandemic volunteers have fallen by the wayside as they have moved on to other things or no longer feel safe in a hospital environment, which means that the association is now actively seeking new help.
What are the main motivations for volunteers? “I often used to bring my parents to Santa Maria Nuova and two AVO volunteers were always there on reception, so I said to myself, ‘When my parents pass away, I must absolutely give something back,’ explains Elena. “It’s about doing something useful that’s not only work-oriented and making money.” For Karen, it has always been part of her nature. “In America, I was a candy striper when I was in high school, so I always wanted to do it again.”
Most volunteers are retirees, but there’s the occasional student too. “The other day, when I was at our HQ, a sweet young girl came in who had done volunteer home help for a 92-year-old,” enthuses Eugenia Giolli, an AVO board member.
AVO has volunteers at the following hospitals in Florence—Careggi, Piero Palagi, Meyer Children’s Hospital, Santa Maria Annunziata Ponte a Niccheri, Santa Maria Nuova and San Giovanni di Dio –Torregalli and Villa di Camerata—and various care homes, in addition to home help. A wig rental service is also provided at Niccheri for cancer patients.
In addition to being able to offer three hours a week, volunteers must understand Italian well, be aged between 18 and 73, and be physically and psychologically fit. Held twice a year, the training course takes place every Wednesday evening between 5.30 and 7.30pm from November 8 to December 6 at ASP Montedomini (via Malcontenti 6). Led by healthcare professionals, the topics cover communicating in help-based relationships; the role of the volunteer in healthcare environments; and hygiene and preventive measures. At the end of the course, each attendee will be interviewed by a psychologist to decide the timeslots and location for the volunteer work. (AVO has written agreements with the hospitals, so the commitment must be maintained.) Volunteers must undergo a year’s mentoring with a senior tutor. After 12 months, the volunteer is interviewed again by a psychologist and, if all is well, he/she will enter into independent service.
To find out more, call +39 055 7093563 on Tuesdays 10am-noon, 4-6pm or Thursdays 10am-noon.
Information about making donations can be found here.