Message From Streetlight’s Director

headshot of emily marchi

If you are interested in volunteering with Streetlight, please take time to look through the website, and then read the letter below.

Thank you for your desire to learn more about the work we do in the Streetlight program.  I followed an urge to join Streetlight as a volunteer in 2009, and through a path that became much more of a vocation than a job, I am grateful to serve as the program’s Director.  “Steward” may be a more apt term, as my role is not merely to direct but to sustain and care for our patients and our team.  I hold the responsibility to serve our community as a privilege. 

If you found your way to this page on the website, then I trust you’ve gleaned some cursory programmatic information already: Streetlight is comprised of specially selected volunteers who commit multiple years to partnering with chronically ill and end of life teenagers and young adults through hospitalization and beyond.  In college, there is such an emphasis on choosing the right career, but in my experience, my greatest teachers remain the young people who I have met in the hospital.  They taught me to how to love without ego, lead with humility, and let go while still preserving what matters.  Although loss is an inevitable component of this work, there are many gains.  For anyone who is interested in joining the Streetlight team, I pass on the following lessons that I have learned over my time in Streetlight.  

  1. Do not come here to put smiles on children’s faces. Now, I do not mean that we cannot be happy—there is actually a copious amount of silliness and shenanigans going on here—but let’s take a moment to acknowledge that we are not taking applications for extras in the remake of Patch Adams.  We are meeting patients aged 13-30 in the hospital, and many of them are experiencing the worst moments of their lives.  They are receiving medications that double as toxic chemical agents and they experience unrelenting pain.   Rather than look for the cheer brigade, I am looking for individuals who can sit in suffering.  Some of my richest relationships involve patients who did not want to talk to me on the first 4 attempts in which I visited them.  But over time, lots of listening, consistency, and some creativity (terrariums made for fallen out hairballs, amateur aesthetistry, and banners for all occasions), we forged a trust.  In the end, I was the one left smiling.
  2. Never underestimate the power of Netflix. It pains me to confess that I am the only person in the program without a Netflix subscription, but regardless of your streaming platform of choice, being able to talk about television and movies breeds connection.  People find themselves in these shared stories.  In the hospital, many times the threat to identity precedes the threat to life.  For someone with a chronic illness, they lose parts of themselves before their mortal being is ever called into question.  Losses take the shape of many things, some physical, like losing one’s hair or losing a limb, while some losses are less tangible, like withdrawing from senior year of high school and missing graduation or realizing that signing up for chemo may mean foregoing the option to bear children.  These losses are hits to one’s identity, the pieces that make up one’s sense of self.  We focus a lot on identify preservation and cultivation here.  Painting someone’s nails, organizing a photoshoot, and wheeling in a gaming cart loaded with that patient’s favorite video games are all efforts to keep the whole person intact.  Gabbing about TV may not cure disease, but when life feels like a House of Cards, these conversations can transport someone from the Outer Banks of themselves and connect them with the essential aspects of their identify, even the Stranger Things.
  3. No one gets out of this life alive. We know this, but for those who are fortunate to have good health or have never experienced the death of someone close, one can forget that death is a part of life for us all.  Make no mistake: it is painful to be close to someone who is in pain, someone who is grieving that their life will be shorter than they hoped, but it is important to know that these patients would be experiencing this heartache regardless of whether you chose to enter.  We have the immense privilege to share the sacred space of existence with our patients and hold their fears, joys, and hopes with them.  Palliative care is derived from the Latin word palliare, which means to cloak.  We bring what we have to give through relationship, and we surround and embrace our patients.  It is not individual work, but teamwork, as we join together as a unit to give our care to each of our patients.  As a winter’s frost may kill the above ground growth of a plant, we allow ourselves to grieve, but we know that new growth will emerge in its place, albeit in a different form.  We gather together with our team to remember our patient friends, and we nurture the seeds of enrichment they leave in our hearts, parts of themselves we continue to integrate into our being.  I believe that every patient I’ve met has widened my capacity to understand and to love, so I allow myself to be open to loss, as it also means being open to life.

If you are ready to allow yourself to be changed, even at the expense of your comfort, then I invite you to apply to Streetlight.  I do not require that you will know how you’ll feel when you experience grief, but I ask that you stay true to your commitment, be open to learning, and allow yourself to be carried by myself and this extraordinary community throughout your 2+ years with the program.  I could not have predicted how Streetlight would change my life when I entered this service many years ago.  I hope that it can be impactful for you as well, and I look forward to the opportunity to learn from you.


Emily Marchi

em and a patient