Local areas across the nation have taken a hit in both the health of their residents and the health of their economy, including Auburn. That’s why two student organizations focused on serving their surrounding community — IMPACT and The Big Event — stressed the importance of their efforts this school year more than during a typical year.
Megan Ondrizek, senior in speech, language and hearing sciences who is president of IMPACT, said the organization’s work during the pandemic will require some care in how its students can assist community members, especially older, at-risk citizens.
“IMPACT has always been something that’s easy to serve with, and it’s simple to do, but lately it’s been not too simple to navigate behind the scenes because of COVID,” Ondrizek said. “We’ve really been working on trying to make sure that we’re ensuring safety with both our volunteers and our partnered project sites.”
Because of this, IMPACT is preparing virtual projects such as tutoring services for school-age students or events for retirement communities. Many of its usual activities see hands-on approaches to serving Auburn’s people.
“We’re hoping to partner with retirement homes if possible to do online Zoom calls or online bingo with the residents,” Ondrizek said. “[We’d] really just change a lot of the ways we would serve in-person to serving online so that we can protect all the individuals that are a part of IMPACT. We’re really trying to make sure that we’re serving when service is so needed, even if it’s hard to do.”
This week, IMPACT volunteers began serving virtually for Esperanza House, an Auburn-based nonprofit organization allowing students to tutor children of low-income Hispanic families. Volunteers will also be able to work with Children’s Dispensary, an organization located in South Bend, Indiana, supporting learning for special needs individuals.
Ondrizek said IMPACT will also have some in-person activities as the fall semester progresses compatible with limitations imposed by the pandemic.
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“We are making sure that those are fitting within the guidelines that Auburn has produced for COVID precautions and safety,” she said. “Those projects will be outside, or if they’re inside, [they will] have very limited numbers of volunteers, and those volunteers will be wearing masks the entire time and have hand sanitizer and anything else they might need to maintain safety.”
Currently IMPACT is planning to partner with Storybook Farm in Opelika and the University’s Kreher Preserve and Nature Center for in-person volunteering, though some virtual programs have already started in partnership with the two organizations.
For in-person tutoring, IMPACT is partnering with I Am My Brother’s Keeper, another local nonprofit organization that helps disadvantaged children with their academics in an after-school setting.
Limited in-person outreach this fall means the registration process for IMPACT is somewhat different, Ondrizek said.
“Something different we’re doing this year is we’ve always done a first-come, first-served situation with IMPACT,” she said. “Due to COVID and making sure we’re regulating the amount of volunteers that are showing up at project sites, we are now doing an RSVP system.”
Ondrizek said one benefit of virtual projects, which are entirely new to the organization, is that students involved with IMPACT may still serve even if they’re not in Auburn.
“If you are working remotely from an area outside of Auburn, you are still able to volunteer if you are an Auburn student,” she said. “We’ve always said the Auburn Family extends well beyond the borders of Samford Lawn, and so we’re just making sure that we’re including all those people in doing so. Virtual service is a great way to cater to that community.”
Students in IMPACT will also have a third option of taking up self-directed volunteer work, Ondrizek said.
“We’re providing online opportunities and links to service opportunities outside of IMPACT,” she said. “Those are national organizations outside of Auburn so we are really able to serve ... anywhere in the U.S. that needs service.”
Those seeking to join the organization can sign up through GivePulse, a volunteer management website, at auburn.givepulse.com using their Auburn login details. The website can be accessed through AUInvolve’s service tab.
Once students have joined IMPACT’s page on GivePulse, they may RSVP for projects they’re interested in serving for, Ondrizek said.
For those more comfortable with fully in-person activities, the next The Big Event is currently planned for Mar. 27, 2021 but may take place over multiple days, according to Emilie Rihner, senior in microbial, cellular and molecular biology and president of TBE.
“We’re also looking at the possibility of doing multiple days for the events to spread out the number of volunteers on a given day to minimize the contact and promote social distancing,” Rihner said. “If we do it on multiple days, it would be different weekends ... back-to-back.”
Project coordinator applications were made available Monday, Sept. 28 through AUInvolve and closed Oct. 9. The coordinator position allows students to lead job sites and will have an added role this year of ensuring members follow the University’s “A Healthier U” safety protocols for COVID-19, Rihner said.
“This year our mission is obviously to keep the safety of our staff, volunteers and residents as a priority, but ... the biggest thing other than keeping contact with [residents] is ensuring that we can provide yard work,” she said. “In the years that I’ve done this, I’ve been able to meet with the homeowners, and they love the service that we’re able to provide, because a lot of them are elderly.”
Student volunteer services include kinship with older citizens to provide company during a socially-distanced time as well as yard work on their properties raking leaves and cleaning gutters. Rihner said the former aspect of The Big Event will be especially supportive this year, but she discussed alternatives should physical separation become necessary.
“For the kinship, if we’re not able to do that, we’re thinking about Zooming with the residents, writing letters to them [or] dropping off gift baskets,” Rihner said. “We sent out surveys to the homeowners, and we’re actively calling to ensure we’re meeting the needs of their community.”
The Big Event surveyed a total of 96 homeowners, with 93 of them saying they were comfortable with physically distanced students wearing masks volunteering in person at their homes, according to Rihner. If the need for virtual engagement arises, 39 homeowners said they would prefer in-person distancing to meet with students but would be willing to participate virtually. Twenty-six homeowners said they were interested regardless of what format The Big Event uses.
Should organizers have to forgo in-person kinship, they plan on distributing items like face masks and refrigerator magnets in the gift baskets, as well as cooperating with a new student organization, AU Senior Pals, to pen letters to older citizens.
“Any way that we can continue communication with homeowners in any way that we can would be great,” Rihner said. “[On site], the contact with the homeowners that we have would be extremely minimal. We’ll ask them not to come outside; a lot of it would be over-the-phone communication during the year for preparation.”
Because of safety guidelines, this year will not see The Big Event’s usual kickoff gathering on campus, another change from past events. Volunteers will instead be given a welcoming package at their volunteering location containing a T-shirt and voucher for a breakfast meal, according to Rihner.
“Normally we’ll have a thousand students on the Green Space, and we provide breakfast and coffee, but this year we’re looking to shift it to each job site having their own kickoff,” she said.
Students interested in registering for The Big Event 2021 can expect a link to sign up in the spring as it draws closer.
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