Candy Stripers

Youth Volunteer Program

Candy stripers, known for their red and white striped pinafores, have graced hospital halls and patient rooms for nearly 70 years. Most U.S. hospitals have abandoned this youth volunteer, yet MedStar Southern Maryland Hospital Center’s candy striper program is thriving.

Every summer high school students from Prince George’s and Charles counties qualify for MedStar Southern Maryland Hospital Center’s candy striper program as a way to give back and form their professions. While candy stripers of yesteryear may have been satisfied delivering patient mail, today’s students strive for a taste of healthcare. As one former candy striper puts it, “I want to gain the experience of helping patients, but also make sure that healthcare is the right career for me.”

MedStar Southern Maryland Hospital Center’s candy striper program blends tradition—delivering magazines, filling water pitchers, and answering phones—with education. Candy stripers participate in lunch and learn sessions with physicians, nurses, physician assistants, and speech and physical therapists. Using a patient simulator called SimMan, they even perform hands-on medical procedures under the supervision of an emergency medicine physician and EMS staff.

Planting the seed

For high schoolers, opportunities to sample the healthcare field are limited. The hospital’s candy striper program lets young people see what really goes on in the healthcare profession. “Some of our candy stripers come into the program thinking they want to be a doctor or a nurse,” explains Joanne Johnson, Volunteer Services Coordinator and Manager of the Candy Striper Program. “They end the program considering a career as a dietitian or a physician’s assistant.” With the shortage of healthcare workers rising, interest in any health career is beneficial—after all, the youth of today are the future of healthcare.

Cream of the crop

Joanne sees the quality of candidates in the candy striper program as the biggest change in recent years. The program now requires participants to write an essay on why they want to be a striper, submit their latest report card, provide references and participate in an interview process. “We select those that best fit the program. It’s far more competitive than in the past,” says Joanne.

Because eager, healthcare wannabes apply for the 25 open positions, doctors and nurses enthusiastically let the volunteers observe patient care. “They’re excited to have candy stripers because they see the value of the program,” explains Joanne.

Starting in June and running through August, young women and men, ages 15 to 17, log in a maximum of 24 hours per week. Although young women have traditionally enrolled as candy stripers, three male students interested in nursing participated this year. In the next session, the guys get to wear red and white striped scrub tops and khaki pants. Times are a changing, but the tradition of candy stripers lives on at MedStar Southern Maryland Hospital Center.