How Tufts Organized Hundreds of Virtual Volunteers Amid COVID-19
For the average person, it’s easy to feel powerless against a global pandemic like COVID-19. At least, that’s how Jeffery Zou, A22, felt.
He had heard about engineering students fixing and making face masks for Tufts Medical Center and fourth-year medical students graduating early to join the fight against COVID-19. “I’m just a rising junior and a clinical psychology major. I didn’t really know what to do,” he said.
Zou has always been passionate about volunteering. He’s president of a student group at Tufts that works with the nonprofit organization One Sky Foundation to help special needs orphans in Asia. And he had planned on spending his summer volunteering, but like most other in-person opportunities, it was canceled due to COVID-19.
So, he started looking for virtual volunteer opportunities. “I had to find some way to be helpful and apply some of my skills, especially in this time of need,” Zou said.
He discovered Tufts Civic Impact, an online platform hosted by Tisch College of Civic Life that links the Tufts community with organizations that need help. The opportunities are divided into two Tufts Community Response Volunteer Groups: Virtual and Local. While many of the opportunities are remote, some are in-person (but with no contact) in the Medford/Somerville area. More than 200 people have signed up for each group and more than 75 have already volunteered in some way.
“A crisis of this magnitude demands an unprecedented civic response, and Tisch College is proud to partner with President Monaco and colleagues across the university to provide a coordinated platform for volunteers to be safely connected to opportunities to help in our communities,” said Alan Solomont, dean of Tisch College. “Students, faculty, staff members, and now alumni and Tufts family members can all join our virtual volunteer groups and start making calls, coordinating supply donations, assisting with contact tracing, and responding to many needs. We thank the hundreds of volunteers who have signed up thus far, and we will continue this effort as long as it is needed.”
Virtual volunteer opportunities include the City of Medford’s “Are You OK?” program, where volunteers call elderly residents to make sure they are safe and have what they need. Other examples range from asking local businesses to donate supplies to organizations in need to making masks and “gratitude kits” for healthcare professionals.
“Community volunteers have been invaluable to our ability to do work with our residents throughout the COVID-19 health crisis, particularly some of our most vulnerable residents. In the first week of the City of Medford’s “Are You OK?” program, volunteers called 11,000 individual phone numbers to conduct wellness checks on seniors,” said Medford Mayor Breanna Lungo-Koehn. “We absolutely cannot thank the volunteers enough for their assistance over the last several months.”
Local volunteer opportunities are socially distanced and based around delivering essential supplies, such as dropping off diapers and formula to parents in need or bringing cleaning supplies to shelters that support victims of domestic violence.
Zou volunteers a few times a week for the Massachusetts Voter Table, a coalition of community organizations that integrates voter engagement with grassroots organizing to fight for resources and representation for underrepresented communities. He works on a virtual phonebank for the U.S. Census calling people in hard-to-count areas, because “every voice should be acknowledged,” he said. Sometimes people don’t know how to fill out the Census and he walks them through how to fill it out via the mail, the phone, or online. Or if someone doesn’t speak English, he connects them to hotlines available in multiple languages.
Betsy Eichel-Englander, field organizer for Massachusetts Voter Table, said volunteers like Zou have invaluable to the organization’s efforts, especially given that their typical door-to-door work for the Census is impossible amid a global pandemic.
“Now, with basically all our civic engagement happening over the phone and over text, we’ve become really reliant on volunteers to carry out that work in a way that we haven’t had to do before. Having the Tufts Civic Impact crew join us has been great,” she said. “We’re starting to see some correlation between the calls and an increase in response rates to the Census.”
She credited the diverse group of students for bringing more language capacity and more varied life experience to the team, which helps them relate to people on the other end of the line. And, she pointed out, students can earn credit for their volunteer work.
Rachel Breslau, A21, also used Tufts Civic Impact to connect with a virtual volunteer opportunity. She was studying abroad in Quito, Ecuador, when the COVID-19 outbreak sent her back to the U.S. about halfway through the semester. A political science major and certified Emergency Medical Technician (EMT), Breslau had been volunteering through a service learning class in Quito and decided to find a new opportunity closer to home.
“I am volunteering for Hunger Free America, which currently operates the USDA-funded National Hunger Hotline,” she said. “The main function of this hotline is to connect people to resources, which could be a local food pantry or government programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) or Women, Infants, and Children (WIC).”
She collects basic information, such as their zip code and a summary of their needs. But, she said, the people on the other end of the line often share many more details about their struggles—especially if they have children. She recalled a conversation with a single mother supporting three children and a grandchild who lost her job due to COVID-19. These heart-breaking stories stick in her mind.
Many people who call have questions about SNAP, said Breslau, and the fastest way to apply is online. People who don’t have access to a computer can apply over the phone but wait times to speak to an operator can be long.
“It's such a simple thing I can do sitting at home on my laptop, to look up websites, provide the information, and connect them with these resources,” she said. “During this time of COVID-19, when all of our lives have been affected in some way, I know how lucky I am to have what I have.”
Nonprofit organizations can email the office of Government and Community Relations at firstname.lastname@example.org to notify Tufts University of immediate needs and/or volunteer opportunities. Requests are evaluated and posted on the Tufts Civic Impact website.
Angela Nelson can be reached at email@example.com.