Over more than two decades, San Diego-based nonprofit Fresh Start Surgical Gifts has been enacting positive change throughout the local community, across the nation and even around the world. How? By offering underserved youth with physical differences — due to congenital conditions, trauma or health conditions — reconstructive surgeries and applicable health services, such as dental care, free of charge.

And, for the past 10 years, Rady Children’s Hospital-San Diego has been a proud part of these transformative efforts through the Fresh Start Clinic at Rady Children’s Hospital, which has expanded Fresh Start’s ability to offer patients high-quality care they would not otherwise be able to access or afford. The organization hosts many of its six annual Surgery Weekends at the Hospital, during which patients receive care from leading pediatric medical experts. All Fresh Start Clinic operations are run on a volunteer basis, so everyone patient families encounter, from patient service representatives to nurses to surgeons, are donating their time and talents to give back and make a difference.

Because the care is provided at Rady Children’s Hospital, many of these volunteers are also Rady Children’s employees, giving them a seamless shift from career to volunteer. As we ring in the 10-year anniversary of our partnership with Fresh Start, we also celebrate the Hospital team members who dedicate skill, passion and kindness to changing the lives of children. Get to know a few now, and let’s recognize and thank all of the volunteers who help make this amazing organization possible!

Angelica Gonzalez, lead business access representative
Volunteer since 2009

The moment she saw the Fresh Start Clinic open, Gonzalez’s curiosity was piqued. “I was not aware of who they were,” she remembers. “When I met [Medical Program Manager] Lupita and asked what [they] did … my next question was, ‘how can I volunteer?’ I’ve been volunteering ever since then.” Gonzalez is one of the first people patient families interact with when navigating their Fresh Start experience. She schedules all appointments and registers patients, and also ensures all required documents are in order — particularly crucial for international families. In addition, she often signs up to serve fellow volunteers breakfast on Surgery Weekends.

Gonzalez says that even serving meals brings about warm and fuzzy feelings, but it’s helping the families and seeing how meaningful their surgeries are for them that really hits home. “The most exciting thing for me is seeing our patients have a smile on their face, knowing that we have angels for doctors that make a difference in our patients’ lives. It’s rewarding knowing that I am a part of this great organization, and that I am able to volunteer.” She also loves witnessing the bonds patients are able to build with one another. “One of my best Fresh Start memories was last year at the Cosmo Camp, being able to see all our patients have fun with one another and not be judged by the outside world. They had so much fun, and it makes everything …  worthwhile.”

Frances Ohira, RN, operating room nurse
Volunteer since 2009

Ohira began volunteering with Fresh Start when she wanted to channel her passion for nursing into volunteering, but also needed to stay close to home. “I never had volunteered as a nurse before, but wanted to go on missions. But due to my family situation, I couldn’t. Fresh Start gives us an opportunity to give back to the community right here at the hospital we work at. I think that is GREAT!” she exclaims.

Although she is a circulating volunteer nurse, Ohira mainly works with the plastic surgeon in charge of building new ears for patients with malformations. “It’s called ear reconstruction, and it’s usually in four stages, so four separate operations. It’s amazing seeing the kids return for their subsequent surgeries and the confidence that has been born in them.” Ohira notes that this feeling  is what has continued to drive her love for giving back through Fresh Start. “The evening before each Fresh Start surgical Saturday, I imagine what the kids and their parents are thinking about. How their lives will be transformed. The excitement.  It is a very rewarding experience.” She also spends some of her volunteer time recruiting new members to join the team, and commends all of her counterparts for their dedication. “I really appreciate [those] who take time out of their busy schedules to help out with Fresh Start,” she says.

Anthony Ogilvie, anesthesia technician
Volunteer since 2009

Ogilvie is celebrating a decade with Fresh Start right along with all of Rady Children’s! This longtime do-gooder explains that he got started after learning how needed anesthesia technicians’ essential skills were within the volunteer base. “We only had a few techs, and I try to give back as much as I can. I volunteer because I enjoy it, I like what I do, and the patients and staff are wonderful. I just enjoy helping people, seeing the smiles on their faces.”

The United States Navy-trained expert muses that it never gets old to watch patients consistently build joy and confidence throughout their care process. He recalls the gratitude one patient in particular expressed. “She said ‘thank you’ to the OR staff, and [that] made it very emotional for me.” However, every single patient has an effect on him, enforcing his continued dedication to his volunteer role. “I get to see the transformation of the patients physically and psychologically, and that’s priceless.”

Norman Ogilvie, surgery technician
Volunteer since 2009

Ogilvie “got started working with Fresh Start [at the Rady Children’s clinic] when it was brand new” after collaborating with the organization’s founder, Dr. Dennis Nigro, on a few volunteer surgeries at other area hospitals. “I was so excited,” he recalls, “[and] I continue to do it because I think it’s really important to give back to your community. This is my little way of doing so.”

As a surgery technician, Ogilvie “plan[s] ahead for the surgeries and prepare[s] all the instruments for the surgeon.” He states that his most memorable experience with the organization surrounded a young girl who was the victim of an acid attack. “Although the physical damage was extensive, the emotional damage was so much more,” Ogilvie explains. However, he and his team of fellow volunteers were able to help her heal over the course of multiple procedures. For her and for all of the surgeries Ogilvie has supported, he says, “I think the most rewarding [thing] is knowing the people receiving our service will not get it anywhere else, and really need it. My favorite part is knowing I’m making a difference in another human being’s life.”

Ever humble, he adds, “I’m not the one doing the real service, but I’m so happy to help the ones that really do the great work.” You’re doing amazing, incredible and vital work in our eyes, Norman, and we’re sure the many patients you’ve served would agree!

Melissa Sobaram, RN, post-anesthesia care unit nurse
Volunteer since 2009

Sobaram has been a part of the Rady Children’s/Fresh Start partnership since just about the beginning. “I heard about Fresh Start during a general meeting to staff before their move over to Rady Children’s,” she recalls. “It was so inspiring to hear about the work that they provide, and I was still fairly new to Rady Children’s and wanted to be more involved. It was shortly after that meeting that I became a volunteer.

During her volunteer shifts, Sobaram applies her expertise as a post-anesthesia care unit (PACU) nurse to helping Fresh Start patients during recovery. “I also help to welcome other volunteers and take on a charge nurse role during the day to help the flow and ensure things are running smoothly in the PACU,” she explains. “When we first transitioned into computer charting for Fresh Start, I was involved in helping all the way from the clinic visits to the bedsides. Wherever I am needed, I am happy to help.”

Sobaram notes that she loves working with Fresh Start because despite its local ties, it helps patients from many different states and countries, and says  “see[ing] the transformations of the patients not just physically, but in their personality” is her favorite and most rewarding part of her role. For example, one of her fondest memories involves seeing a patient she first met on a mission trip, who was very shy at the time, during a later visit to the Fresh Start Clinic. “He was practically a new person … so outgoing and happy!” she exclaims. Sobaram continues, “I am a nurse, and if I have the potential to help others, I will. I don’t need to be a nurse just to be paid. Especially in the health care setting, much of what we do is caring for others, and volunteering just goes to show how much we care less about ourselves and more about helping others.”