Carolyn Colsher: 2018 Community Partner Alden Award Winner

Friday, June 15, 2018
carolyn colsher

Dr. Deborah Gold, who nominated community partner Carolyn Colsher for the 2018 Betsy Alden Outstanding Service award, writes about why she's the perfect candidate:

"Identifying community partners for the initial Death and Dying class (Sociology 264) in 2001 represented the biggest service-learning challenge I have ever faced. Even conceptualizing what kinds of sites would be appropriate for college students with little or no experience with death was difficult. We could use places like nursing homes or hospitals where death might be expected in the long term, but I knew that certain students needed a more direct experience with the process of death. And somehow I didn’t think we would get any cooperation from local hospitals to identify their dying patients and provide us with access.

And then I thought of Duke Homecare and Hospice.  I wasn’t sure that the program would either need or want Duke students, but I contacted the volunteer manager there, Carolyn Colsher, to see. And am I glad I did!

What has Carolyn done as a community partner between Death and Dying and Hospice? She has been amazingly flexible. The training to become a hospice volunteer is 20 hours, the same number of hours as the entire service-learning requirement for the semester. Duke students couldn’t do this, so Carolyn created a way that they could participate by having them shadow trained volunteers. Allowing the students to do this gave the Death and Dying students a powerful service-learning experience… perhaps more than any other in my four service-learning class.

Carolyn has been fastidious in watching out for the well-being of the Duke students. Many have experienced the death of a hospice patient… sometimes under difficult circumstances. Carolyn always reaches out to the students themselves, but she also contacts me to be sure that I follow up with them as well. By keeping us informed, Carolyn has made Duke Hospice a safe site for the students who go there. She truly cares about the students and the long-term impact of their experiences with death.

During the past several semesters, the student grapevine has spread information about the remarkable experience that occurs at Hospice and with Carolyn.  Instead of just attending the 2 hour training session and shadowing  a seasoned volunteer on her/his rounds, the students are making a different choice.  If you were to ask the students who makes them want to attend a twenty-hour orientation (nearly double their hours spent visiting patients  and for no class credit) and commit to volunteering for a full year rather than just a semester, their answer would be Carolyn Colsher.  Carolyn has been working with Dr. Gold for well over a decade and every single year that goes by, she continues to give unparalleled attention to the students volunteering with her. In past years, we have had one student per semester who elected to work with Carolyn. This past semester (Fall 2017), in addition to the students who did the shadowing, Carolyn incorporated 6 other students, all of whom made the choice to go through the complete training program and commit for a year just to have the experience of working with Carolyn.

She recognizes that the students need regular ongoing contact with their service-learning sites, but even Carolyn cannot guarantee that someone will be dying every week at the same time! Her creativity in providing alternate assignments has been amazing. She has integrated the students into the inpatient hospice facility. They play music or sing to patients; they read to them as well. Some of the patients just want to have a hand to hold or a person to sit by their beds with them so that they don’t die alone.

Whatever the challenge with our student volunteers, Carolyn Colsher has met it with grace, charm, and remarkable insight and empathy. Anyone could have opened the door to Hospice for us, but no one else could have provided the exceptional experience that Carolyn Colsher has for well over a decade. I certainly hope that she is selected for the Betsy Alden award as I cannot imagine another community partner who has given more to service-learning and Duke students than Carolyn Colsher has.