Community service survives COVID-19

How student organizations preserved their passion for service while adapting to COVID-19

Now more than ever, neighbors and local communities rely on one another for support. 

ASU organizations were among the first to reach out and help COVID-19 first responders, students and their families and community members who relied on local nonprofits.

For many of these student organizations, plans for a normal year are reliant on in-person service activities and events in the community. Helping hands are now restricted to Zoom calls or socially-distanced projects with limited capacity, which can disrupt the typical productivity and sociability of volunteer work. However, many members of the ASU community know they can’t pause service despite this year’s circumstances — instead, they are approaching service opportunities in a new way. 

Virtual service projects have become the standard for volunteering this year as clubs are continuing to adapt to the circumstances and create safe social events for all students.

The pandemic is global, but the most important service starts at the local level.

Barrett Leadership Service Team (BLAST)

By creating opportunities for leadership development and assisting Barrett, The Honors College in their signature events, Barrett Leadership Service Team makes serving the ASU community a priority. 

BLAST’s club charter says their members value the importance of personal connections through service, especially during a period of social and physical distance. Dora Le, one of the club’s social service directors and a sophomore studying biomedical sciences, said the club is still adjusting its plans to the pandemic and often feels limited by virtual service opportunities. She recognizes the difficulty of “Zoom fatigue” students face while attempting to commit to online service events such as virtual voter registration panels or biweekly club meetings. Without a tangible project to engage in, it can be hard for students to want to stare at their computers for another couple of hours after a long day of online school or work, Le said. But club members have been dedicated to creating a laid back environment that allows for student involvement regardless of their location. 

Mara Boiangiu, another social service director for BLAST and a junior studying neuroscience and global health, said the club has been successful in reaching a larger audience through advertising among Barrett classrooms and advisors. “There’s a lot of different ways to help, and what hinders a lot of people is that they like to see that tangible good,” said Boiangiu.

BLAST adapted to virtual service opportunities by remotely leading students in writing letters to COVID-19 first responders or making socks for patients at Phoenix Children’s Hospital. They’ve also continued to maintain their partnerships with global organizations such as Education for Humanity.

Pitchfork Pantry - downtown Phoenix

As a student organization that combats food insecurity, Pitchfork Pantry had to adapt quickly to continue serving students across all four campuses. Lindsay Pacheco, the downtown Pantry’s president and a junior studying medical studies, said the organization expected the flow of students to slow down as the semester posed increased difficulties for students to come to campus, but saw an increase in traffic instead. 

Over the summer, volunteers held pop-up events to deliver food packages to students’ homes by appointment, which left some stock for the fall semester. Pacheco said the pantry has been able to accommodate in-person service opportunities at a limited capacity but has adjusted by pursuing an educational route for students to learn about food insecurity, budgeting and nutrition.

“Students need us now,” she said. “Even if it can’t look like it usually did.”

Changemaker Central - downtown Phoenix

Changemaker Central, like many other service-based organizations, is dedicated to seeking leadership and civic engagement opportunities for all students, but when the students don’t show up, planning for the semester becomes more difficult.

Sydni Cook, an advisor for Changemaker Central - Downtown, said, “The number of students participating has been negatively impacted” by the limitations of COVID. While the organization has received interest from new members, the reliance on virtual events has restricted knowledge about Changemaker’s opportunities. A typical semester for Changemaker usually includes partnering with local nonprofits such as St. Mary’s Food Bank and St. Vincent DePaul. However, with the pandemic, some of their partners have either decreased their involvement or turned to hybrid projects. Without abundant amounts of physical advertising or students living on campus, members are limited to using social media platforms as outreach platforms. But virtual restrictions haven’t been the only difficulty; staff members were once able to carpool to events or distribute supplies for projects, but now they are more independent than before, creating restrictions by both distance and money.

Despite any challenges resulting from physical separation among students, Changemaker is determined to continue collaborating with other ASU clubs and local nonprofits to host events. 

“We figure if many departments and organizations put our resources together, we can create few programs that are really great, as opposed to multiple programs that have minimal impact,” Cook said. 

Most importantly, she stressed the importance of the basic mission of service during this time: to make commitments to individuals and meet their needs. “Simple forms of service go very far,” she said.

Music Meets Medicine

Juggling work, school and hobbies can be challenging, but members of Music Meets Medicine found a way to maintain the balance while continuing to serve others. In a typical year for this student-run club, members put on group performances for hospice patients so the shift toward virtual service during the fall semester proved to be an immediate obstacle. Student liaison Katie Wilkinson, a junior studying biomedical engineering, said re-evaluating the club’s event plan for the year was both a blessing and a curse, but the traffic of online club fairs and distance from community members couldn’t stand in the way of meeting new musicians. 

Wilkinson worked closely with her fellow board members — club president Michael Leung, a junior studying biochemistry, and hospice liaison Jayashree Iyer, a junior studying biomedical engineering —  to brainstorm convenient service opportunities for all students regardless of major, work schedule or location. 

The club began advertising among the members’ classmates and social media, mostly appealing to students by emphasizing the convenience of earning volunteer hours while recording musical performances for patients. “For students who may not be able to make it (to the performance time) on the weekends, it may be a bit of a hindrance for them,” Iyer said. “But now they can record any time they want.”

Rotaract

In the midst of a global pandemic, local communities are most reliant on service from their neighbors, and ASU’s Rotaract club knew this more than anyone else. According to Adrienne Vescio, the president of Rotaract and a senior studying astrophysics and physics, the club’s adjustments were difficult at first and required safe, innovative ideas for local service projects. Many nonprofits and organizations the club usually collaborated with either closed or restricted their volunteer opportunities for outside members. Like many other student service organizations, virtual projects appeared to be the best temporary solution.

Vescio said through heavy social media outreach, Rotaract “always manages to find people who are passionate about service” within the ASU community. 

“I think a lot of people are hesitating a little bit to go in person just because the numbers are scary and you don’t want to put anybody that’s important to you at risk,” she said. “But there are still ways to get involved.”

The organization plans on holding at least one virtual event each month this year, but Rotaract has begun to participate in more in-person volunteer projects — such as shifts packaging food at Feed My Starving Children — while taking necessary precautions of limiting carpool capacities and taking temperatures prior to the event.

“I hope that by showing other people that we are still able to do those things they’ll see that service isn’t dead in the age of COVID.”


Reach the reporter at mandrea1@asu.edu or follow @miagandrea on Twitter.

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