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Connecting Hearts Abroad Ambassador: Kerry Leyden

Kerry Leyden  | March 12, 2014

Tags |  Caring

In August 2013, Kerry Leyden traveled more than 8,000 miles from the comforts of her native Canada to the unfamiliar landscapes of South Africa. But this wasn’t a holiday excursion. It was an eye-opening, thought-provoking adventure as a Lilly  Connecting Hearts Abroad  ambassador in a settlement on the outskirts of Cape Town

It might surprise you to learn that Kerry, who manages Lilly’s customer response center in Canada, describes her volunteer experience in a poverty-stricken community as “wondrous.” But then you haven’t met Peter, Lucy and the other residents and staff who captured Kerry’s heart at a government-run facility for the elderly and disabled. 

Here, Kerry shares how 14 days with people whose lives have been altered by apartheid, disease and poverty have forever changed her life and renewed her compassion for the customers whom Lilly serves.  

A Letter for Lucy

Her name is Lucy. And when I first met her I think my “big” personality may have overwhelmed her. But in two short weeks, we connected in a way that neither of us will forget. She has an official title of manager and occupational therapist. But at the facility where she caters to the physical and emotional needs of the people in her care—more than 80 seniors on some days—she is so much more.

I watched Lucy with quiet awe. She would talk with one resident while rubbing another’s back comfortingly. She would speak to one senior who demanded her attention while sharing a wink with another who waited for her patiently. It didn’t matter if they could hear, see, move or even understand her words. They knew her face, her voice, her touch. Their demeanor always brightened when she entered the room.

Lucy does not see the residents in her care as the maladies that burden their bodies or minds. She relates to them—and celebrates them—as people, not patients. She cares for them deeply and treats them as if they were members of her own family. How inspiring! So I decided to follow her lead. One day I offered to give hand massages to the residents. The touch therapy was a good way to show the residents my appreciation for them. It also was a catalyst for conversation—one of my goals as a volunteer.

Peter was the first resident to take me up on my offer. But he informed me that a 10-minute hand massage was not sufficient time to share all his stories. We would need weeks. Oh the stories I heard—not just from Peter but from many of the seniors. I heard stories that broke my heart, brought tears of laughter to my eyes, and filled my spirit with gratitude for the opportunity to know these beautiful people—many who suffer from dementia, diabetes and other debilitating diseases.

Lucy, Peter and so many others in Cape Town broadened my thinking in ways I didn’t expect. Here are a few of my observations and insights following my service trip with Connecting Hearts Abroad:

Our business is about relationships. 
People don’t choose to be sick or to be patients. We need to be compassionate and see our customers not just as patients but as people. Lucy beautifully demonstrated this lesson for me and the other volunteers. As the manager of our customer response center in Canada, I am working with my team to ensure we are always mindful of our customers as people, not just patients or caregivers. These jobs can be tough. Callers can be frustrated. But if we approach customers relationally and convey that we genuinely care, I believe we can deliver a better experience and achieve a better outcome for the people we serve.

It’s good to get your hands dirty. 
By that I mean get involved. Before my trip to Cape Town, I had supported our annual United Way campaign in Canada with a donation. But I had never served on a committee. That changed when I returned from South Africa. I joined a committee and we came up with the idea to collect and sell new or gently used jewelry. We called our bejeweled drive the “Bling Bling Ka-Ching Ka-Ching” accessory sale. In one day, we raised more than $2,000 in proceeds for the campaign. 

A caring gesture goes a long way. 
That goes for colleagues, customers and strangers. Before I left Cape Town, I had one final assignment to complete. I was so inspired by Lucy that I wanted to write a letter to her supervisor and express what a powerful impact she had on me—not to mention the impact she has on the people in her care every day. After I drafted the letter, I shared it with Lucy. She was mystified by my gesture at first—another indication of her humility. But when she read it, I could tell she was genuinely moved and appreciative.

South Africa is a wondrous place. The warmth of its people has impressed me beyond words. I try to write monthly to my new friends there, forever grateful for the lessons they taught me.