Stephanie Kyriakopoulos had always been the designated listener in her circle of friends. Whenever they bumped up against one of life’s small crises, they would turn to her for a sympathetic ear.
As an undergraduate at Elmhurst College, Kyriakopoulos learned just how valuable her talent for listening could be in the professional world.
Kyriakopoulos, a 2012 graduate of Elmhurst, spent the summer after her junior year working at Senior Home Sharing, a Wheaton-based nonprofit that places older adults in shared suburban homes. The position, which she found with the help of the Center for Professional Excellence, turned out to be a great fit for her.
“I found that I was good at listening, and that I had a skill for defusing conflicts. I could put a smile on people’s faces,” she said. “That’s when it became clear to me that I should be doing social work.”
Now that she has graduated, Kyriakopoulos is still putting her natural talents to work as the regional volunteer coordinator for Passages Hospice, a Lisle-based organization that provides end-of-life care for terminally ill patients. She describes Passages as an organization that aims to make patients’ final days as comfortable and as peaceful as possible, which means tending not only to their medical needs, but to their social and emotional needs, too. That’s where the organization’s corps of volunteers comes in.
The volunteers visit patients, typically once a week, in private homes, nursing facilities and senior communities. The visits provide a much-needed respite for the patients and their families. Volunteers sit with patients, read to them, watch favorite TV shows with them, or simply listen as the patients talk. Such basic human interaction can make a huge difference in a patient’s last days, Kyriakopoulos said.
“Some of the patients get lonely,” she said. “They really look forward to volunteer visits. It’s about meeting their emotional needs.”
Kyriakopoulos recruits, trains and oversees volunteers for Passages. One of her first tasks is to prepare volunteers for the challenges of working with the terminally ill. In training sessions, she educates volunteers about such topics as stress, family dynamics and the effects of dementia.
“We don’t want to throw volunteers into this unprepared,” she said. “We want them to have a realistic picture of what they will encounter. These are terminally ill patients.”
What makes the volunteers’ job easier, she said, is knowing that they are providing solace and comfort not only to the patients, but also to their families.
“When you get a little bit of praise from the family, that’s like hitting a home run,” she said. “You really appreciate that.”
Since she began working at Passages in late 2012, Kyriakopoulos has managed a number of student volunteers from Elmhurst College, including some from Kappa Sigma, her Elmhurst sorority.
“I like all my volunteers, but the Elmhurst volunteers are especially enthusiastic,” she said. “They really want to help, to do anything they can.”
Kyriakopoulos credits her service-learning and internship experiences at Elmhurst with helping her grow personally and professionally. While she was at Elmhurst, in addition to her internship position at Senior Home Sharing, she also worked at Clearbrook, a service for people with disabilities, at the Head Start child development program, and as a counselor at a summer camp.
“I interned wherever I could,” she said. “Those experiences helped me mature as a person. I wasn’t always the most amazing student, but those experiences ignited a flame in me; they made me want to do better. I knew that this was what I wanted to do with my life—to be a social worker.”
Now that she’s enrolled in a master’s degree program in social work at Aurora University, Kyriakopoulos is discovering just how well her Elmhurst experience prepared her for advanced studies.
“I feel like I’m leaps and bounds ahead of some of the other students in my program from other schools. It’s not just Elmhurst’s curriculum; it’s the service-learning opportunities, the internships,” she said. “You learn a lot in the classroom, but what you do in the field is really vital, too.”