Tuesdays are special for Owen Laatsch, 22, of Arlington Heights. That's when he shows up to volunteer at Advocate Lutheran General Hospital in Park Ridge in the kitchen prep area alongside his mentor, Joe Zajac.
Last week, when Laatsch set out on his shift, he gave Zajac a high-five and declared to his mother, "He's the man!"
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Laatsch has Down syndrome and is a patient at the hospital's Adult Down Syndrome Center, where increasingly its staff is promoting volunteering as part of its holistic approach to treatment.
"When he gets up on Tuesdays, he's just giddy," says Laatsch's mother, Cathy Laatsch. "He loves coming here and the teamwork involved."
Over the last year, 12 adults with Down syndrome have begun volunteering at the hospital, in the food and nutrition area, pediatric therapy department and gift shop -- even the childbirth education department and the Adult Down Syndrome Center itself, greeting and escorting patients.
The center has treated 5,500 patients with Down syndrome over the last 20 years. An expansion last year allowed it to bring more healthy lifestyle programs to its patients, enhancing its holistic approach.
"We meet the medical needs of our patients but we also want to meet their life needs," says Dr. Brian Chicoine, an Arlington Heights resident and center director. "We work with them, their families and social agencies to promote health."
Anthony Bosshart, 23, also works in the kitchen prep area, helping to clean tables in the hospital's main cafeteria. After six months of volunteering and gaining confidence, Bosshart landed a job at a Rosati's Pizza near his home in Hoffman Estates.
He works at the Schaumburg pizzeria five nights a week, but he saves Fridays for volunteering at the hospital.
"I love doing this," Bosshart said last week, as he prepared to check in. "I like working here. It brings back good memories."
Grace O'Connor, a former special education teacher, is one of the patient advocates at the Adult Down Syndrome Center. She consults with Georgia Paschos, volunteer services coordinator, to make sure they come up with the right fit for the volunteers.
For Owen Laatsch, they knew he had worked in the bistro cafe at IKEA in Schaumburg, clearing tables and doing some light food prep.
"I think it was providential that we found this," his mother says. "I knew he could do it."
Maria Neri, 37, of Niles, preferred a quieter environment. Consequently, for the last two years, she has volunteered for the Obstetric and Family Practice physicians assembling educational packets for expectant mothers.
"We know they had a really active life in high school, and when it ends when they turn 22, we know there's a tremendous void," O'Connor says. "Volunteering gives them a purpose in life, which we believe is vital to patient health.
"They're making a difference and able to give back," she adds. "They feel good about that."