It’s mid-afternoon on a typical weekday for the Environmental Services staff at All Children’s and the blue-shirted brigade of hospital housekeepers has assembled for a special training session.
Dozens upon dozens of staffers – the folks who go the extra mile to keep patient rooms neat and clean – gather in a hallway outside the department office and await instructions on an initiative of pressing importance.
The material they have come to master rests on several rows of tables and the task looks daunting indeed. But this is no time to throw in the towel – it’s time to make some terrycloth magic with them.
“Welcome everybody to towel animal training class,” shouts housekeeping manager Martha Drew over the din of conversation and laughter.
With that, veteran housekeepers and animal-making aces Stephon Anderson, Cecilia “Cece” Barnett and Aida Esperanza get to work folding and twisting small towels and the assignment suddenly starts to take shape – in the form of swans, turtles, elephants, stingrays and more.
You would normally expect to such family-friendly creations at the foot of a bed at a five-star hotel or in the cabin of a cruise liner. But at All Children’s, they are the distinctive signature of the environmental services staff, a small but uplifting touch that awaits each patient and family as they enter a hospital room.
The practice was done sporadically in the old All Children’s building but has been a regular part of life – bringing surprised smiles to youngsters – here at the new hospital the past three years. Housekeepers learn or brush up on their towel-animal techniques every few months in orientation and refresher training sessions, and the entire department takes the playful process seriously.
The department leaders, who work for ACH through the Sodexo Company, show an instruction video to help the nearly 120 staff members master the requisite skills. They have even tapped experts from Carnival Cruise Lines to conduct teaching demonstrations, and utilize an array of manuals to show their employees myriad styles for making the towel menagerie come to live.
“When we opened the new facility, we really wanted to start things off with a bang, so one day we went around and put a towel animal in each patient room,” said Environmental Services Director Mike Dansberger. “Our administrative director, Anna Stratigos, really encouraged us to get the program rolling.”
The housekeeping staffers have embraced it fully. They have witnessed the power of the towel craft first-hand and know what a difference the cotton creatures can make it a child’s day.
“I remember there was this one little boy who was so sad, because he missed his pet dog,” recalled Barnett “So I learned how to make a towel dog and hand it to him. And he was so happy. It really made me feel good.”
“The kids love it and the parents love it,” added housekeeper Wanda Williams. “Just to see their faces and the excitement and joy it brings them is so special.”
The animals underscore the unusual bond that links the room-cleaning crew with the kids and families with whom they cross paths – whether it’s for a few days or for months at a time.
“We look at this as more than a housekeeping job,” Williams said. “The kids and parents are like our family here. And when they get to know you by your name, it brings even more to your heart.”
To bolster the connection, housekeepers leave personalized calling cards that include their name and a photo of themselves. As an added touch, Anderson likes to tuck his inside a fold of one of his animals so the children and families will know he’s the one personally looking out of them during their stay. Many of his colleagues now do the same.
“At All Children's Hospital, we are all about making sure that when they come, they get better,” he says. “And we make these animals to help them feel more comfortable and more at home."
Housekeeping manager Drew has seen how deeply her staff’s enthusiasm for the towel animals has taken hold: “It’s really exciting. They’ll look at how Stephon was thinking outside the box and made an elephant. And then they’ll say, ‘Okay, I’m going to try to make one, too. Lo and behold, everybody is making different versions of it.”
She regards it as part of a larger sense of pride her people take in preparing the patient rooms:
“People generally don’t think about the amount of hard work it takes for one of our housekeepers to get a room cleaned and ready. When they finish the room, not only is it disinfected properly, it has what we call a picture perfect setup. So in every room, just like a hotel, everything is in the same place in each room.”
And every room has a cushy critter ready to welcome a child in need of a morale boost.
“I was really surprised to see it – I’d been in the emergency room and when I was brought into my room, there it was: an elephant,” said a patient named Stacey, who has been in and out of All Children’s the past decade. “I remember thinking, ‘Oh that’s so cool!’ It was nice to see something different in the room. And it makes you happy.”
She has since been greeted by a swan and turtle, among other fabric friends.
“People who come into the room are amazed to see them in a hospital,” she added. “Everyone wants to know how they’re made and who does it.”
All in a day’s work for the folks in blue.
“Faces and Places” is a regular column written by Strategic Communications Editor Dave Scheiber highlighting those people, places and things that make All Children’s Hospital special. If you have an idea for a story, please contact writer Dave at (727) 767-2490 or email@example.com