Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
October 24, 2020

Service organizations get creative to continue helping their communities

By MICHELLE LIMPE | October 16, 2020

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COURTESY OF MICHELLE LIMPE Service club leaders discuss the challenges and advantages of operating during a virtual semester.

Once the University decided that the fall semester would be entirely online, student service clubs had to rethink how they could continue helping their community partners. While the virtual format made it easier for some organizations to continue conducting their meetings and tasks over Zoom, others have not been as successful and have even had to put a pause on their club’s activities. 

In an email to The News-Letter, Gerrod Williamson, student leadership specialist at the Center for Social Concern (CSC), noted that the virtual semester has actually had a positive effect by forcing both student groups and the CSC to become more creative in recruiting new volunteers.

“Virtual volunteering requires out-of-the-box thinking and innovation and we have seen our students rise to the challenge. We have seen student groups figuring out how to hold virtual group homework help sessions. We’ve seen groups navigate shipping materials to their community partners for people dealing with homelessness,” he wrote. “Our students got to these solutions once they navigated through the mental barrier that this is not ‘service as usual.’”

Unfortunately, Williamson shared that the number of new service clubs this year has lessened as groups are focused on rethinking their capacity for services and activities.

The CSC remains committed to supporting and providing resources for old and new service organizations, even if they have had to decrease their allocated budgets for clubs. 

“It is awe-inspiring to see how the Blue Jay family, everyone from faculty to staff and students, is adjusting to provide the best outcomes possible this academic year. The creativity and ingenuity that the shift and pivoting has pulled out of all of us, makes me feel that this is what ‘COVID-19 planning’ looks like,” Williamson wrote. 

Student Advocates for Low-Income Health

Seniors Meera Krishnan and Christina Boatwright founded Student Advocates for Low-Income Health (SALIH) over the summer in response to COVID-19. Since their organization was founded on an online platform, they haven’t had many issues with continuing their work during the semester. 

Boatwright explained that she and Krishnan created SALIH to provide relief goods and kits for low-income and homeless populations who may not have access to necessities due to the pandemic. 

“It was an individual project that I personally wanted to put some kits together that included things such as masks and hand sanitizers to hand out in Los Angeles. Then we thought maybe we could do this in different cities and make it an official initiative,” she said. 

As of now, SALIH has operations in Los Angeles, Baltimore, Detroit, New York, New Jersey, Seattle and Dallas. Since everything is remote, Krishnan and Boatwright coordinate with the volunteers over GroupMe and Zoom to fundraise money through social media campaigns and contact homeless shelters in the area. 

Krishnan highlighted that SALIH’s priority is ensuring that all distributed goods are clean — for the safety of both volunteers and recipients. 

“The volunteers were given funds based on what they expressed they needed, and they themselves assembled kits in each of the cities,” she said. “The hardest part is ensuring that our kits are virus-free. We’ve been leaving them alone for three days. We’re doing no contact drop offs and wearing gloves and masks.”

They shared that despite the virtual semester, SALIH’s recruitment process went well and they received many applications. They are still encouraging students to reach out to them if they want to help. 

“I think people are looking for ways to help out more, especially given the fact that Hopkins is remote. Students are trying to get involved in ways that are remote,” Krishnan said. 

Right now Krishnan and Boatwright are in the process of officially registering their organization under the CSC.

Musicare

Unlike other service clubs, Musicare was unable to continue providing services for its community partners. Musicare is a service organization that visits hospitals, retirement homes and other sites to perform live music for the sick and elderly. 

Senior Mathis Leblanc, co-president of Musicare, explained that he and the other club leaders are still trying to figure out the best platform to use in order to play their music for hospital patients. They are considering YouTube or Zoom; however, Zoom decreases the quality of the music and YouTube will not allow them to play their music live. 

“Music is obviously a very in-person activity, and that’s a big aspect of all its benefits. We don’t actually have a definite format yet. We’re still figuring it out,” he said. 

During a semester, Musicare members usually meet twice a month to visit a community site. Because of the many proven therapeutic benefits music can have on health, LeBlanc emphasized that it was only natural for Musicare to bridge the gap for patients to have better access to live music. 

Even though LeBlanc does not have high hopes that Musicare will be able to start visiting hospitals and retirement homes again in the spring semester, he wants to use the present time to expand the club’s community partners and find ways to improve patient connections. 

“It would be nice to become a social club for musicians to meet and work together. Those were the two main things I wanted to work on pre-COVID,” he said. 

Project Finish to Start

Founded in 2019, Project Finish to Start is a service opportunity created to help Baltimore public school seniors in their college application process. 

Founder and president junior Romila Santra explained that her team coordinated with Mavis Jackson, director of College Readiness for Baltimore City public schools, to learn how to best approach creating a syllabus and working with the students.

“We have workshops every other week with both our mentors and mentees. During the workshops, we have a set syllabi for meeting, then the kids split off with the individual mentors. For example, we’ll talk about creating the college list and deciding your priorities for colleges,” she said. 

During Project Finish to Start’s first year, the club had 15 to 20 high school students. However, because of the pandemic, the number of students who are able to attend its programs and workshops have dwindled due to internet access issues. 

“Apparently the Baltimore public school district ran out of hotspots for kids and that slashed a lot of students with solid internet access,” Santra said. “It’s a lot of barriers and they’re doing everything virtually so the counselors and teachers are all overwhelmed. It’s just a lot.”

To work around this issue, Santra noted that mentors have been using other modes of communication, such texting, that do not require a robust internet connection. Project Finish to Start has also been collaborating with other student organizations with similar missions to find more high school students who may be in need of its services. 

Despite the virtual format, Santra believes that Project Finish to Start’s recruitment process went well.

“We reached out on Facebook to the freshmen Facebook group and [the Student Involvement Fair]. More mentors actually applied than we could take on. The freshmen especially are super engaged and really making the best out of a bad situation, and they really want to get involved in the mission of Project Finish to Start,” she said. “It’s mainly that communication is hard and sending a flurry of emails every week and keeping track of that is doubly difficult when everything is online.”

Moving forward, Santra is positive that the club will continue to grow and hopes that mentors will be able to connect more with their mentees through engagement programs such as visiting Hopkins to see a day in the life of a college student. 

Hop Outside

With the organization’s entire premise of helping Baltimore youth engage with the outdoors, Hop Outside has had to get creative with fulfilling its mission. Hop Outside was founded in 2018 by Hopkins alum Joy Song and partnered with Baltimore Inspiring Connections Outdoors to provide free outdoors trips for Baltimore public school students and youth refugees from Spanish-speaking countries.

Current president junior Sofia Romano explained that, prior to the pandemic, Hop Outside led outdoor trips for public school students every weekend and “mock trips” with its club members beforehand to prepare for the excursion. 

“Although Baltimore is surrounded by natural spaces, inner-city youth face economic and logistical barriers to the outdoors such as transportation and equipment cost, availability of a chaperone and lack of experience,” she wrote. 

Since the pandemic moved everything online, Hop Outside continues to offer its volunteering opportunities virtually, which includes online skills training and meetings. Romano noted that she and the other club members are working hard to provide virtual outdoor engagement opportunities for the Baltimore youth.

“Due to COVID, Baltimore public schools are fully virtual, and our partner organizations have paused outdoors trips. This means that the barriers to the outdoors for Baltimore City youth are higher than ever. We are working hard to create model trip plans to hyper-local outdoor spaces that families can use,” she wrote. 

Additionally, the virtual format has made it difficult for Hop Outside to recruit new members. However Romano shared that students interested in outdoor activities still found Hop Outside and attended its first virtual general body meeting. Hop Outside is still open to accepting new members. 

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