Atlanta, GA,
13:02 PM

Welcoming Back Volunteers

Volunteers play a vital role in patient care at Shepherd Center.

When Margaret Hopkins received the e-mail that she could return to Shepherd Center as a volunteer, she estimates that it took her just about 40 seconds to respond.

“I was so excited,” says Margaret, who has been volunteering at Shepherd Center since she was 15. “I couldn’t wait to go back.”

About 150 to 200 volunteers provide up to 1,500 hours of service every month, doing everything from feeding patients breakfast to delivering mail to working as a gym runner during therapy sessions.

“Volunteers are a huge part of our daily operations from an assistance point of view,” says Alex Seblatnigg, CAVS, CPXP, Shepherd Center’s director of volunteer services and internal engagement. “They are part of our culture and are deeply embedded in this organization.”

But on March 16, 2020, things got quiet. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the volunteer program had to be paused.

“It felt like I got laid off from a job,” says Zach Wilson, who has volunteered as a breakfast feeder for the past 12 years. “I felt a little lost.”

Because the volunteer community is so strong, Seblatnigg held socials in the Shepherd Center parking lot throughout the year. There, the volunteers could see each other, hear updates and still maintain social distancing. “It was so important to stay connected,” Seblatnigg says. “They check in with each other and checked in with us. The volunteers are like an extended family.”

This past March, Shepherd Center decided to allow volunteers who serve as breakfast feeders to return with specific protocols in place. Any volunteer who has direct patient contact must be vaccinated and must wear a mask and, in some cases, a face shield.

Margaret and Zach are both breakfast feeders. In fact, Zach trained Margaret when she took that position six years ago. They show up at 6:45 a.m. to begin feeding patients, usually those with quadriplegia. It’s a job that helps the nurses by freeing up their time to focus on other tasks.

“It felt so good to walk back up on the fifth floor,” Zach recalls. “The patients and nurses welcomed us back and were so glad to see us. We knew we had been missed.”

“We were welcomed back with a lot of fanfare,” Margaret adds. “They made us feel like celebrities. There was so much excitement, and I realized that’s what I had been missing.”

Margaret has long been acquainted with Shepherd Center. She grew up not far from the hospital. So when her mother suggested that she and her brother find something productive to do with their time, Margaret chose Shepherd Center. She’s been volunteering for 25 years, helping out wherever needed. She was also a member of the Shepherd Center Junior Committee and the Shepherd Center Society. When she decided she’d like more patient contact, she began feeding patients. She comes to the hospital two mornings a week and stays for about two hours before heading to her job at the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta.

“The best part of volunteering is the culture,” Margaret says. “Everyone has the same goal — to help ensure that the patient improves to the best of their ability. It’s like magic. It’s a very positive place. It’s like a hug you didn’t know you needed.”

Zach began volunteering when he was looking for something to do with his time after he retired. A friend who was already a volunteer encouraged him to come to Shepherd Center.

“He was one of the original feeders,” Zach recalls. “I followed him around and learned what he did. After thinking about it for a few months, I decided to join him.”

At first, he came every day and stayed after breakfast to help in the gym. He has since reduced his hours and comes in three mornings a week.

“I feel like I’m doing something positive by volunteering at Shepherd Center,” Zach says. “It’s a valuable service we are providing, and the patients and nurses appreciate it. It gets my day off to a good start.”

Shepherd Center staff members feel the same way.

“Volunteers are so important to Shepherd Center,” Seblatnigg says. “Not only do they help us, but they bring such joy and happiness to the hospital.”

For more information on volunteering at Shepherd Center, visit


Written by Sara Baxter


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.