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Saturday, September 25, 2021

A helpful heart: Waidner finds inspiration and friendship through service

The three-time SEC Community Service Team member forged a powerful bond through her involvement at UF Health Shands.

Lauren Waidner at UF Health Shands Children's Hospital. Waidner's charitable nature led her to volunteering all over Gainesville.
Lauren Waidner at UF Health Shands Children's Hospital. Waidner's charitable nature led her to volunteering all over Gainesville.

Florida golfer Lauren Waidner didn’t find her most impactful friendship on the course, but inside a hospital room with a teenage girl battling a chronic illness.

Waidner spent the summer of 2019 interning in the pediatric department at UF Health Shands Hospital, following in the footsteps of her parents, John and Amy, who are both pediatricians. While conducting patient satisfaction surveys and doing routine check-ins, Waidner found her newest friendship.

The golfer met an 18-year-old girl confined to a hospital bed while she battled a heart condition, with no realistic cure or chance at a transplant. Despite the grim diagnosis, she remained bursting with positivity and a radiant outlook on life, Waidner said. In the short time the two had together, Waidner said she was at Shands almost daily, often sitting at her friend's bedside. 

The girl’s family was absent through the majority of her treatment and Waidner stepped in to fill that void, said Emily Marchi, who directs a program called Streetlight that Waidner is heavily involved with. The girl’s mentality and friendship reaffirmed Waidner’s aspirations to be a doctor. 

“[She] further lit that spark and made me realize what my passion in life is,” Waidner said. “I can thank her for that.”

Waidner grew up in a household that embodied the serving nature of her parents’ profession. Throughout her time at Fleming Island High School in Fleming Island, Florida, where she was a three-time district medalist, she participated in the American Junior Golf Association’s “Leadership Links,” a program where students fundraise for organizations. 

Waidner used their guidance to raise money for the Jacksonville-based non-profit, “Reach Out and Read,” which purchases books for at-risk children to help build their reading skills. Once at UF, she helped organize a Climb for Cancer event for children who have struggled with cancer to meet and play with student athletes. She frequently visits Gainesville schools with the Florida Student-Athlete Advisory Committee to pack up shoes for underprivileged children. 

In October of 2020, Waidner received the East Lake Foundation’s Tom Cousins Award. The honor is given to individuals who exemplify the charitable nature of Cousins, who rehabilitated the East Lake community with new apartment buildings, a school and a community center. 

“It was a huge honor to even be associated with such a name and such a foundation,” Waidner said. “To think that I do something that at all resembles what they have done is really meaningful.” 

Waidner and Co.

Lauren Waidner and other student athletes visit a child in the UF Health Shands Children's Hospital.

Before being recognized for her services, Waidner partnered with the University Athletic Association’s Hawkins Center — an academic hub for Florida’s student athletes giving them access to services like tutoring, advising and job placement — in the spring of 2019. The three-time SEC Community Service team member connected with Shands through the Hawkins Center where she began to deepen her bond with the girl. 

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In the few months they had together, Waidner and her friend refused to dwell on the inevitable ending ahead. Instead, they found joy in the little things. From art projects to taking trips around the hospital in her wheelchair, life was still worth living. 

In each adventure out of her room, the patient would say hi to everyone they passed. She waved at or fist bumped all the nurses, a smile on her face the whole time. 

“The easy thing to do would be to mope and be angry at the world,” Waidner said. “She just embraced everything that life had to offer and was so kind to people when she didn’t have to be.”

Watching Waidner and her friend, Marchi was struck by the dedication Waidner had to the relationship. She thought Waidner would be a good fit for Streetlight — a UF Health program Marchi directs that supports adolescents and young adults who have chronic illnesses. The program tries to ensure none of them fight alone.

Streetlight expects volunteers to commit to at least two years of service to forge bonds with patients. The program ensures patients have an intimate network of people to make sure that they feel valued, and not isolated, at the end of their life, Marchi said.

“I was able to witness first hand what Lauren was like in that role,” Marchi said. “I felt like, you know what, if she can do this right now, then I know she is going to be great for [Streetlight].”

At the conclusion of her summer internship Waidner joined the Streetlight team. Two weeks into working for the program, her friend died. 

The loss weighed on Waidner. She said their bond was rooted in their shared gratitude for life and the small memories she holds close to her heart. 

Despite her commitments as a Division I athlete, the inspiration of Weidner's friend drove her to return to Shands for Streetlight’s volunteer requirement of at least three hours a week.

“Even though I am a student athlete, one of my primary goals with that platform was to use it.” Waidner said. 

At the conclusion of her senior year, Waidner reflected on the experiences she had both on and off the golf course. Her time working with those less fortunate than herself put her four years at UF into perspective. 

“Use what you have to give back... and realize how lucky you are,” Waidner said. 

Waidner believes the experiences she had throughout her undergraduate years at Florida made her a better person. 

Even with all of the time she spent focusing on golf and volunteering, Waidner has remained on track to go to medical school. Marchi says Waidner’s service is defined by her humility, patience and empathy as she continues to find and forge relationships like the one she found in her friend’s hospital room.

Contact Joseph Henry at jhenry@alligator.org. Follow him on Twitter @Josephhenry2424.

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