Filling In The Volunteer Gaps

Looking at Karen Pannell’s life, it’s easy to see that service to others is her chief motivation.

From her years in the Tri-Hi-Y Club growing up in Millen, to raising her son, John, and daughter, Jamison, to chairing the board of directors for Memorial University Medical Center (MUMC) in Savannah, Pannell, 58, has sought ways to fill in the volunteer gaps in her community.

“I know I’ve been blessed with opportunities and put in certain places at certain times,” she says. “Everywhere I’ve worked or served I’ve been surrounded with incredible people who believe in what they’re doing, people wanting to make things happen for the better. That’s gratifying.”

Initially, Pannell intended to make a difference by becoming a schoolteacher. She attended the University of Georgia, earning her degree in education, but never got to the classroom.

“I got a job with the Georgia Electric Member-ship Corporation the summer after I graduated and I loved it,” she says. “I worked with the legislature and Georgia Power as they were divvying up the state as to where the EMCs would be located.”

She dabbled a little in politics, working for Bo Ginn when he ran for Congress and governor, and married her husband, attorney Jim Pannell, who also served in the Georgia legislature in the 1980s. The couple moved to Savannah in the mid-1970s.

While her husband developed his law practice, Gray & Pannell, LLP, she found work as executive director of the Chatham-Savannah Voluntary Action Center.

“The center was a clearinghouse of volunteers,” she says. “We helped recruit volunteers for nonprofits in the area. One of my tasks was to help the center become a United Way agency to help with funding.”

While working to find volunteers for other organizations, Pannell continued to volunteer her time at her children’s schools and with Historic Savannah, the Jun-ior League, Telfair Museum of Art, and America’s Second Harvest of Coastal Georgia, the Savannah food bank serving 28 counties in coastal Georgia and South Carolina.

In the midst of all that volunteering, Pannell’s parents were both hospitalized. Their experiences left her interested in issues relating to the quality and safety of patient care. In 2001, a friend said he wanted to talk to her about MUMC, the 530-bed academic medical center serving southeast Georgia and southern South Carolina.

“I said, ‘Which committee and what are you raising money for?’” Pannell recalls. Her friend ex-plained that they wanted her to join the hospital’s board of directors.

“I felt completely out of my element, but I talked it over with my husband, and he convinced me that I could make a contribution,” she says. “They wanted someone who was active in the community and it’s been an incredible experience.”

In addition to serving as a board member, Pannell also chaired the board for two years, 2007 and 2008.

“It’s very much a working board,” she says. “No one on it gets a paycheck, they just believe in what they’re doing.”

The board recently brought in a new president and CEO, Phillip Schaengold, to run the hospital. Pannell says Memorial has im-proved its patient safety/ quality rating in the past eight years; it’s ranked in the top five percent for patient safety nationally and is one of eight hospitals in the state recognized in 2009 for Patient Safety Excellence by Health-Grades, the leading independent healthcare rating organization.

The board continues to lobby hard for increased trauma center funding; MUMC houses the only Level One trauma center in that region of the state.

True to her own devotion to volunteerism, one of the things Pannell is most pleased with seeing accomplished during her tenure on the board is rebuilding the hospital’s volunteer program, which had diminished in the past decade. “Our world had gotten awfully busy with monetary pursuits,” she says. “I see much more of a volunteer spirit these days.”

After nine years, Pannell rotates off the board in February 2010, begging the inevitable question: What will she do with her time?

“I’ll have to see what comes up on the radar,” she says.

She’s active with Wesley Monumental United Methodist Church and looks forward to welcoming her second grandchild in December.

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