Pinellas teen volunteer keeps hospice resale shop alive, despite pandemic

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PINELLAS COUNTY, Fla. (WFLA) – A Largo High School junior never stopped giving back to his community during the height of the coronavirus pandemic when he could no longer help patients nearing the end of their lives in hospice care.

Ian Polachy has been volunteering with Empath Health and Suncoast Hospice since before his freshman year of high school.

He volunteers primarily at the Suncoast Hospice resale shop, located at 1478 South Belcher Road in Clearwater.

Polachy helped keep the shop up and running throughout the pandemic and still does so as it continues.

“Because at that time, [the owner] was very short staffed, and didn’t have many people who were able to come in, because many of the volunteers are older and couldn’t risk getting sick. So having me there… me and some of the other teens were able to help her out,” Polachy said.

Before the pandemic picked up steam, Polachy spent countless hours with hospice and end-of-life patients, holding birthday parties and just sitting to chat with them, and sometimes their families as well.

He and other teen volunteers with Empath Health also created chalk art outside of a few facilities, not just for the patients, but to remind the staff members they were still being supported, even though the volunteers were unable to interact with them face-to-face. Birthday parties and visits with patients were held via Zoom when possible.

He enjoys visiting with these folks and hearing their life stories.

“Even though they’re at end of life, it’s obviously going in and helping interact with the patient and help brighten up their day for that one [person] who [could have] months or within a week. But it’s also about the family,” Polachy explained. “The family, that’s a big part about hospice, too, is that we provide support to the family. It lets the family see that their patient, their family member is happy and is able to have a little bit of fun even though they’re in that situation.” 

Part of hearing those stories is actually recording some of them and creating memories that will last a lifetime for other families members, in a patient’s own voice and words.

Polachy and volunteers would sit down with patients and ask them questions about their lives, as well as future advice for their families, and record their answers for something their families can treasure forever in the form of a CD. He said he has filmed about six interviews and helped edit others he wasn’t able to hear in person.

He said the patients greatly enjoy it.

They absolutely love doing it. That’s one of the things I’ve been doing for awhile. We go in and we kind of sit down and we just start talking to them. We have them tell us from their childhood all the way to their career, what they had done, their schooling, what they did throughout their life and now,” he said.

That led the group of volunteers, including Polachy, to another project.

“Through that, we also did the Veteran’s History Day project. I’ve done that for the past two years now. I absolutely love doing that,” he said. “We went in and the veterans were able to talk, we recorded them and they talked about what they had done and all their stories and all that. I was able to help edit those videos, which were then sent to the Library of Congress, which I think is really cool.”

Melissa Moré, director of volunteer services at Empath Health, is grateful for Polachy and his commitment to volunteering, even during a pandemic.

“Some of our teens find a niche that they enjoy, which is great, people find what they love. But Ian, more than most teens, has touched every single program, so that’s pretty cool,” she said.

One thing Moré said that stands out to her is the resiliency of Polachy and the other teen volunteers they work with. She said they have shown the “truest form of resiliency” in their abilities to remain active in the volunteer community and to continue to give back, even when it wasn’t required and their own personal and school lives were turned upside-down due to the pandemic.

“Ian not only did the bare minimum but he was extremely active last summer during COVID-19. Resiliency. It’s been a hard year, especially for young people,” Moré said.

Polachy has won awards for his extensive volunteer work, including a national “volunteer of the year award” with hospice.

He has also been on the teen leadership board for going on three years, helping to organize events for volunteers, both before and during the pandemic. Polachy is also a mentor and teacher to others and would tag along with a new volunteer to a patient visit to help initiate conversation.

“It’s very rewarding because it brings me a sense of completeness if that makes sense. I’m able to interact with the community and I’ve helped so many people. It just makes me feel happy that I’m able to bring that joy to some people who definitely need it,” Polachy said.

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