Countdown 3, 2, 1. The red light on the video camera blinks on.
"Hello, this is your old grandmother and mother. I love you."
The woman before the camera addresses her family, tightening her face as she mentions their names. Her eyes squint, and her voice quavers with tears. Her hands tremble, grasping the chair's arms as if to steady herself. "Now here's a story I have to tell."
Bertha Kaufmann, 79, suffers a life-threatening heart condition and is a patient of the Hospice of the Florida Suncoast's Supportive Care program.
Hospice social workers matched Kaufmann with teen volunteers in the Lifetime Legacies program. The program allowed Kaufmann to share her story on tape in a "life review," a gift for family members that will be a living record after her death.
The Lifetime Legacies program began in 1997 with a grant from Youth as Resources of Pinellas County, an organization that supports youth initiatives with money from the county, the Juvenile Welfare Board and United Way. Lifetime Legacies, now supported by the hospice, produces video life reviews, scrapbooks and journal projects.
Teens videotape the projects and sometimes interview the patients or document the patient's memories and pictures in scrapbooks, under the guidance of social workers and grief counselors who meet the volunteers at the patients' homes. So far, more than 100 video projects have been completed.
"The fact that the teens have fallen in love with the project and realize the importance of the project to the patients and their families has allowed them to take on larger leadership roles," says Barbara Carrier, teen volunteer specialist for the hospice.
At Mrs. Kaufmann's residence, Corey Licht, a 10th-grader at Palm Harbor University High School, set up the camera while Liz Raftery, a 12th-grader at Palm Harbor University, chatted with Mrs. Kaufmann, who sat in a mustard-colored chair. Mrs. Kaufmann smiled. She wore a pin with a picture of her deceased husband, Bill.
The camera began rolling, capturing Kaufmann's memories and personality on tape for her family. She told stories of pranks she played as a child in Brooklyn, of raising her own children, of happily married life.
Mrs. Kaufmann, whose heart condition is now stable, will give the video to her family and watch it with them, says social worker Gayle Stokes. "It was wonderful for her self-esteem and for her to process some of the experiences she's been dealing with," Stokes says.
"I think she was elated," says Sharon Springer, an adult hospice volunteer. Springer has known Kaufmann for five months and helped her prepare for the video shoot. "She keeps all the people in her nursing home laughing. I thought it was real touching that she started off on a real serious note."
Volunteering with people who are terminally ill is serious work. Though some teens (and some adults) may view working with hospice patients as depressing, "when you think of the gift (the life review) is giving the family, the pros outweigh the cons," says Raftery.
A bonus for Licht is the chance to pursue his penchant for video editing and camera work. "I hope to get more experience when we start editing," he said. "(Volunteering) gives me more practice when I'm filming the patients."
The intergenerational connection the volunteers make with the subjects is meaningful. "I thought it was a great way to give back to the community," says Raftery, who has been volunteering with the hospice for four years and serves as community liaison on the school's hospice teen council. "I've learned not to take things for granted, and I've learned to appreciate my family more."
As the camera's light turns off and the shoot wraps up an hour later, Mrs. Kaufmann sits back for a moment, savoring the life she just recounted. "This is marvelous, honest to God. My family is going to go bananas." She smiles, proud of her accomplishments.
"I didn't expect all this. I feel like I'm a star."
If you are interested in volunteering with the Hospice of the Florida Suncoast, call (727) 586-4432. For volunteer opportunities in other counties, contact Lifepath Hospice (Hillsborough, Polk, Hardee, Highlands) toll-free 1-800-209-2200; Hospice of Pasco, (727) 845-5707; Hernando-Pasco Hospice, (727) 863-7971; or Hospice of Citrus County, (352) 527-2020.
Brian Orloff, 17, is a 12th-grader at Palm Harbor University High School and a former member of the Times X-Team. He is a hospice volunteer.