Virtual volunteers to prevent social isolation

Beth Reese Cravey
| Florida Times-Union

Ray Pringle knows what to say to people who are learning how to live with serious injuries or sickness.

In 2008 the retired Army veteran and former police officer lost much of the use of his legs after having spinal surgery. For years he has used his experience as a volunteer certified peer mentor for Brooks Rehabilitation Hospital patients, which because of the COVID-19 pandemic is now seeking 400 additional volunteers to provide virtual services.

“I have met some beautiful people that have had to face a perplexing injury or sickness, such as waking up to the reality they will never walk again,” he said. “Having to face that permanence is devastating to a person. I know, I had my doctor tell me those heart-wrenching words. I live mostly in a wheelchair and I share to others the ups and downs of life doing so.”

As a volunteer at the Jacksonville rehab hospital, he tells his own story to help patients achieve quality of life, to put “their lives back together to what I call ‘an adaptive normal.’ Serving others is the Golden Rule, ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’ I love being a volunteer at Brooks.”

Additional volunteers are needed for virtual peer mentoring, program assistance and elder companionship, said Jessica Cummings, executive director of the Brooks Health Foundation, who oversees volunteer services and community health programs.

“As with all of our community-based programs, our goal with the expansion of our volunteer program is quite simple: prevent social isolation, which in turn improves one’s mental, physical, social and emotional well-being, and provides continued rehabilitation for better quality of life,” she said.

Volunteers can be as young as age 14 and will be trained.

Peer mentorship, program assistance and other volunteer opportunities were long available at Brooks, but the pandemic prompted the addition of virtual services and the elder companion program. 

“Brooks realized that so many of our community elders were sheltering in place … They were also becoming socially isolated,” Cummings said. “By having a virtual way for companionship, the elders can remain safely at home and still have a social outlet.”

The 400 new volunteers are expected to provide at least 3,000 additional hours of community service. The connections they make will be via Zoom, telephone or both, “depending on the services and the individual’s comfort with technology.” she said.

Brooks is largely funding the virtual effort, with help from a $20,000 grant from Volunteer Florida as part of $496,000 awarded to 24 nonprofit and service organizations throughout the state.

“Skills-based volunteers are an integral part of many nonprofits as they help extend the reach and capacity of organizations to meet their missions,” said Volunteer Florida CEO Clay Ingram. 

What will the virtual volunteers do?

• Peer mentors

Qualified volunteers will be individuals or caregivers who are living with a disability. They don’t have to have the same disability as the person they mentor, but most do, Cummings said. They will virtually mentor patients — or their family and caregivers — who are at Brooks or in the community living with a spinal cord injury, brain injury, stroke or cardiac impairment and/or amputation.

The intent is for them to “provide hope, support and a path forward for those struggling with their new normal,” she said. Training for this program is “rather robust” and is in partnership with the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation, Amputee Coalition and other organizations.

• Program assistance

These volunteers will provide virtual and in-person help for Brooks’ adaptive sports and recreation and pediatric adaptive recreation programs. They will also help the hospital’s Aphasia Center that serves adults with a communication disorder that impairs their ability to speak and understand others; and its Brain Injury Clubhouse, a day program for people who have experienced a brain injury.

• Elder companionship

Volunteers will call Brooks patients, offering “sensitive listening, general conversations, friendship and support” to help them feel less isolated, Cummings said.

Brooks plans a variety of recruiting methods, including the United Way of Northeast Florida’s volunteer recruitment site, and Volunteer Match, an online tool for volunteerism. They will seek student volunteers through “already strong relationships” with the University of North Florida, Jacksonville University, Florida State College at Jacksonville, Flagler College and the University of St. Augustine. Also, they will work with agencies that serve seniors, such as ElderSource and area assisted-living facilities.

Cummings said she is “blessed” to lead the effort.

“Our founder, Dr. J. Brooks Brown, once wrote that he hoped we would be out of business by now, because that would mean that everyone would have the compassionate care they need and we would have made such extraordinary advances in prevention and rehabilitation that people would not need our services,” she said.

Though Brooks’ work continues, she said, “I believe he would be proud of these endeavors and the small ways we are advancing rehabilitation within our community.”

Beth Reese Cravey: [email protected]


To volunteer, send an email to [email protected]. For more information about Brooks Rehabilitation, go to


To volunteer, send an email to [email protected]. For more information about Brooks Rehabilitation, go to

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