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Volunteer Profile: Carol Olsen

Walk into Shepherd Center on a Monday, and the first person to greet you will likely be Carol Olsen, 63, of Atlanta.

“She’s been volunteering here for 10 years, and since 2008 she’s been our Monday morning welcome desk volunteer,” says Alex Seblatnigg, volunteer services manager at Shepherd Center. “Carol doesn’t point anybody anywhere. She gets up and walks people where they need to go.”

That fact is worth noting not just for Carol’s commitment, but also because when she first came to Shepherd Center in 2001, she could not walk at all. She arrived as a patient with brain and spinal cord injuries she sustained in an accident while traveling for her job with Bell South.

“Three months later, I could walk with assistance, and I went back to work,” she says.

In the decade since, she has contributed more than 1,460 hours of volunteer service at Shepherd Center, many of those days at the hospital’s welcome desk.

“The first time a patient or a family walks in here, it can be especially overwhelming,” Alex says. “Your family is going through a life-changing time, and you don’t know anyone. And then you see Carol, who is just so caring and warm. Families who timidly asked her for directions on day one constantly stop to visit with her ever after because they already feel like they know her.”

The motivation is easy, Carol says. She remembers the “cutting-edge” therapy she received, how “doctors didn’t walk past you here. They look you in the eye and say hello,” she recalls. As a patient, Carol also quickly noticed the endless stream of volunteers who seemed ever-present.

“I’d wake up smiling because of how I was helped here,” she says, “so I decided before I was discharged that I was going to volunteer.

“People came here to help in so many ways – during therapy sessions, at the welcome desk, going on outings with us to the theater, to restaurants and malls,” she adds. “One of the things I learned to do here, that is so hard for an independent person, is to ask for help and communicate what you need. I’m just trying to help others do that now.”

Alex estimates about 150 to 200 volunteers contribute between 1,200 and 1,500 hours a month. “They are such a gift to us,” she says. “Our staff and our physicians can provide quality care because our volunteers fill the gaps. We can do so much more because of what they do for us.”

In Carol’s case, her contributions don’t end at Shepherd Center’s front door. She volunteers in other areas of the hospital and helps with special events sponsored by the Therapeutic Recreation Department. As a member of Shepherd Center’s Auxiliary Board of Directors, she helps coordinates fundraisers such as the annual holiday tradition, “Pecans on Peachtree.” And she has become an ambassador, too, speaking at community events on the hospital’s behalf.

“Everyone says, ‘We want Carol! We want Carol!’” Alex says with a laugh. “She is always going above and beyond. There is never a ‘no’ from her.”

In 2010, Carol was honored with the Peggy Schwall “Spirit of Excellence” Award, an honor given by the Shepherd Center Auxiliary to a member who demonstrates as extraordinary a commitment to Shepherd as the award’s namesake did.

“I still get more out of this place than I put into it,” Carol says. “It’s almost like psychotherapy. It doesn’t matter how cranky I might be, it’s such a joyful, promising place.”

About Shepherd Center

Shepherd Center provides world-class clinical care, research, and family support for people experiencing the most complex conditions, including spinal cord and brain injuries, multi-trauma, traumatic amputations, stroke, multiple sclerosis, and pain. An elite center recognized as both Spinal Cord Injury and Traumatic Brain Injury Model Systems, Shepherd Center is ranked by U.S. News as one of the nation’s top hospitals for rehabilitation. Shepherd Center treats thousands of patients annually with unmatched expertise and unwavering compassion to help them begin again.