Photo one: Meg Dufour (at right) smiles next to Blue, the Sanford Hospice therapy dog and his handler. Photo two (left to right): Meg Dufour; Christina Atabala; Chrisie Funari; Joanne Moquist; Amy Bruns, lead major gifts officer, Sanford Health Foundation; Jackie Boss and Monica Graffius. Photo three: Monica Graffius plays the violin outside patient rooms.

Volunteers make Ava’s House a home

May 29, 2018

Thanks to hundreds of donors who supported the Gift of Time campaign, Ava’s House by Sanford opened in Sioux Falls last October. Already the multi-generational acute-level care hospice facility has touched the lives of more than 100 patients and their families.

Every detail of the building is designed for warmth and comfort. But it’s the many volunteers and staff who make it feel like a home.

The facility’s namesake, Ava, was just 4 years old when she lost her life to cancer. Her mother, Chrisie Funari, and great-aunt, Joanne Moquist, are among the House’s greatest benefactors. They also share their time and leadership to support its continuing mission.

Since losing Ava, the two women have found new purpose and passion in giving others the chance to live fully at the end of life. Moquist and her husband, Ron, made an extraordinary lead gift to support the construction of Ava’s House. Funari was instrumental in drawing from her daughter’s hospice experience to help Sanford Health design a facility to meet the needs of patients of all ages and their families.

In May, Moquist and Funari made a special visit to Ava’s House together. Funari was also accompanied by four members of her staff from the Arizona Cancer Foundation for Children, a nonprofit she founded after Ava passed away.

The group first met with volunteer coordinator Pam Merchant, who found roles for each person to match their skills and interests. Merchant says that volunteers are an invaluable extension of the care staff at Ava’s House. They may spend time with patients in any number of ways, including reading, writing letters, or journaling life’s stories.

“Volunteer service can range widely,” she said. “Our volunteers may work behind the scenes or offer companionship to our patients.”

When Merchant discovered that one member of Funari’s team was a violinist, and another a trained therapy canine handler, she managed to quickly secure a violin and a therapy dog. The two women were able to use their talents to brighten the day for patients in a uniquely special way.

By the end of their visit, the group had made priceless connections and left with full hearts. (See local media coverage of the visit on Keloland and the Argus Leader.)

“Many of our volunteers mention their lives have been changed for the better,” said Merchant. “The families and patients share their fears, concerns, joys, hope and sorrow; our volunteers perceive this as an enormous gift of incomprehensible value. They receive more than they give.”


Interested in volunteering at Ava’s House?

We asked Merchant to tell us more about becoming a volunteer at Ava’s House. Volunteer opportunities are also available at the Sanford Hospice Cottages, long-term care facilities or in-home settings.

  • How can volunteers help?

There are opportunities for everyone, whether you are interested in working behind the scenes or spending time with patients and families.  

Many volunteers choose to spend time visiting with patients and their families. They may read, write letters or journal life’s stories.

If needed, volunteers can offer respite for caregivers, allowing them to rest, run errands, or tend to needed chores. Volunteers may assist with light housekeeping, food preparation or simple outdoor chores such as mowing the lawn or weeding the garden.

Certified or licensed volunteers may also offer pet therapy, haircut or styling, massage therapy, and more. Those who wish to help behind the scenes may assist with mailings, filing, and assembling informational packets for prospective patients. Following the death of a patient, a bereavement volunteers may attend memorial services, spend time with, or give family members a phone call to follow up with them.


  • What is the average time commitment?

Volunteer service can range widely, depending on the setting. Those serving at Ava’s House or the Sanford Hospice Cottages consistently spend two to three hours per week and make rounds with our patients and families.

Those serving in a residential setting may spend two or more hours a week with one patient, depending on the relationship they build with the family.

In-home volunteers will support the patient and their family during their time of need, and once the patient passes, may not have another assignment for many months. Their efforts are concentrated during the last many weeks or days of the patient’s life.

To get started, please contact Pam Merchant at (605) 312-5511 or pamela.merchant@sanfordhealth.org

Volunteers will be asked to submit to a background check and health assessment. A volunteer orientation will be arranged to prepare you for your role.


Looking for other ways to give?

Ava’s House was made possible almost entirely through the generosity of donors who supported the construction phase of the Gift of Time campaign. Now that the building is open and caring for patients, its ongoing mission will continue to rely on the power of philanthropy. Learn more about supporting the endowment phase of the campaign here or contact one of our major giving officers directly:

Amy Bruns at (605) 312-6742 or amy.bruns@sanfordhealth.org


Lisa Karsky at (605) 312-6745 or lisa.karsky@sanfordhealth.org