The bright purple vests worn by Mackenzie Health volunteers are unmissable if you’ve spent any time at Cortellucci Vaughan Hospital or Mackenzie Richmond Hill Hospital. On a very difficult day, in a place you might not want to be, it’s easy to get confused or agitated. In that environment, purple stands out. That’s the point.

“We are the first line of contact at the hospitals. When someone is anxious, or in pain, or lost, we want them to see us and notice us,” says Gwen Johnstone, president of the Mackenzie Health Volunteer Association. “We offer support and information, of course. But it’s the comfort that patients and families remember. It’s a vulnerable time. Many of us have been there.”

The volunteer community supporting Mackenzie Health existed two years before a hospital was ever built. In 1961, a group of civic-minded women in Richmond Hill decided the fast-growing community needed a hospital. They organized themselves originally as the York Central Hospital Auxiliary, with the very same mission guiding the work of the volunteer association today - service and fundraising.

Today, the 500 or so individuals who volunteer their time and talents to Mackenzie Health are as diverse as York Region itself. Among the service and recognition pins volunteers wear on their vests, many wear a badge indicating which languages they speak in addition to English. At last count, there were 11 languages featured. The ability for patients and their families to speak and ask questions in their own first language is a gift at a stressful time. It’s an invaluable service, helping alleviate confusion and anxiety.

Volunteers in purple standing between banners and marketing materials raising awarenessLike many volunteers, this part of the hospital volunteer experience — being a source of comfort and strength for someone in their time of need — has made the biggest impact on Gwen.

While you expect to find volunteers in hospital reception and helping to discharge patients, there are volunteers working, unseen and diligently, to support many functions of the hospitals, including the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU), Medical Imaging, Long-Term Care and Emergency. They sit on committees and boards, helping connect the hospital to the community and vice versa. Gwen, a retired teacher, started as a volunteer for Mackenzie Health right back in the classroom, in a local outreach program designed to reach grade one students, helping alleviate doctor and hospital anxiety.

“I am in awe of many of our volunteers,” says Gwen. “The skills and experience they bring with their passion, it couldn’t be bought at any price.”

This year, Mackenzie Health Volunteer Association celebrates its 60th anniversary. In the early days, women sold baby clothes and crafts to raise funds, but that focus on handiworks expanded and added up over time. In the first 50 years, Mackenzie Health volunteers raised $4.6 million. These funds paid for major renovations to the Intensive Care Unit (ICU), new surgical suites, and neonatal ICU units.

Volunteers in purple standing side by side outdoorsWhile COVID has challenged the in-person events so important to fundraising, volunteers have gotten creative. In addition to raising $250,000 for new baby monitors, the association recently presented $500,000 to the Foundation to support a group counselling room within the Mental Health Day Hospital and Aftercare Medication Clinic, and an activity within the Mental Health unit.

Volunteer in purple standing between grateful staff“We see and support people on some of their worst days, and we see how patients and their families struggle mentally and emotionally,” says Gwen, of the donation to support mental health services. Dedicated to supporting the community’s needs and raising awareness of various services and programming, there is no doubt Mackenzie Health volunteers lead with dedication, positivity and thoughtfulness at the forefront to enhance the patient and visitor experience.