Becoming Amanda: Jill Emmert-Larson, Amanda the Panda Volunteer

For nearly 10 years, Jill Emmert-Larson has shared her time and experience with EveryStep Grief & Loss Services' Amanda the Panda program.
As a volunteer, Jill has worn many hats, from helping with marketing efforts to assisting in small support groups, to finally reaching the pinnacle of her volunteer career: transforming into Amanda, the program's panda bear mascot.
"You get to go out there and you're with the people," she says of donning the Amanda costume. "You get to give lots of hugs. Everyone loves Amanda. There's nothing better than someone coming up to you for a hug and saying 'I love you, Amanda.'"
Jill first found Amanda the Panda through her job at a marketing company in 2009. The company had adopted Amanda the Panda, so to speak, offering to give the program a marketing makeover.
"I got to work with them a lot, and then I started volunteering," Jill recalls. "Since I knew a lot the back-side, I helped with their website and newsletter, just maintaining that in the beginning."
Over time, her volunteer duties changed and evolved.
"I'd moved on in my volunteering," she said. "I was helping in the kitchen and at camp."
She also spent time working as an assistant in small groups.
"You sit there, and listen to parents talk about their loss. It was hard to hear all of that. But the groups become very close, which was very nice to see. It made me really appreciate what Amanda the Panda does for everyone."
A few years ago, Jill took on perhaps one of the biggest volunteer tasks of all: becoming Amanda.
"I got into the suit, and that's been my favorite," she says. "I do it five or six times a year, whenever they need me and my schedule allows."
Jill doesn't plan to stop volunteering anytime soon. In fact, she's busy recruiting others to volunteer their time with the program, including her husband.
"He's primarily worked in the kitchen with me," she says. "Then he took on the task of working as my Amanda handler. He makes sure that I'm not tripping and helps to make sure I'm seeing everyone."
Jill suggests anyone considering volunteering with Amanda the Panda think of the impact they could be making.
"Just knowing the good that they are doing and how it's helping so many people that maybe don't have access to that kind of help," she says. "I like knowing there's a group out there providing this service."
Over the years, Jill has seen that impact first hand in the kids she greets at support group or camp while dressed as Amanda.
"You see them over the course of a year, kids who are at first very shy," she notes. "Then they make friends and open up and you see them change and becoming happier. They're with people who understand what they are going through."
In the end, Jill says all you need to do to help is start small.
"Just start small, it's a small amount of time you're donating to people who need it," she says.
To volunteer for EveryStep Grief & Loss Services' Amanda the Panda program or to learn about other volunteer opportunities with EveryStep, visit our website.