The platform matches skilled volunteers with New Haven area nonprofit organizations to assist with their pandemic-related efforts.
Some are sewing masks. Others are making phone calls to isolated seniors. Still others are delivering groceries and prescription medicines.
Since mid-March, about 500 people from the Yale community and beyond have signed up to volunteer amid the COVID-19 pandemic using a volunteer matching platform developed by a group of graduate students from the Yale Jackson Institute for Global Affairs.
The platform, NewHavenHelpWithCovid.com, matches skilled volunteers with New Haven area nonprofit organizations, to assist with their pandemic-related efforts.
When the pandemic hit the U.S. and stay-at-home orders were put in place by Connecticut Gov. Lamont, staff from the Agency on Aging of South Central Connecticut (AOASCC) brainstormed on what more they could do for the isolated seniors on their 3,000+ person contact list. Grocery delivery and wellness check phone calls were immediately identified as top priorities.
When Tom Davis of AOASCC learned about the new platform, he immediately signed his agency on. Since then, they’ve recruited about 40 new volunteers from it.
“The outpouring of support from the Yale community has been humbling,” Davis said. “My faith in humanity is alive and well.”
Volunteers who have signed up to deliver groceries are provided with protective gear, a grocery list and a Stop & Shop gift card, along with contact information for each client.
“We’ve never done anything like this before,” said Davis. “Now we’re talking about keeping this going after the COVID crisis. Some people have no other support. It’s been an eye-opening experience,” he said.
But it’s not just local organizations that are benefitting from the volunteer work.
Trent Fuenmayor, who is graduating this year with degrees from the Yale School of Management and the Divinity School, is one of the volunteers doing grocery delivery. The volunteer work provides a way to be useful and to stave off his own anxiety about the pandemic. “It elevates my mood. It’s almost meditative,” he said. “It’s an opportunity to live out my values.”
Fuenmayor came to Yale for his graduate studies after working for nonprofits in East Africa. For him, engaging with the local New Haven community feels like a return to his roots, albeit in a different part of the world.
“As graduate students, we feel transient. It’s nice to feel like I served the community while I was here, even in some small way. We’re all filling in the gaps. I’m doing this for someone else’s parents,” he said.
Eric Liu, a junior cognitive science major at Yale, is currently at home in Virginia, but felt a responsibility to pitch in to help residents in New Haven. The work of the Agency on Aging particularly struck a chord with him.
“We all have elderly people in our families,” he said. “Our senior citizens are becoming lonelier, especially now because it’s dangerous for people to visit them.”
Since April, Liu has been making wellness check phone calls to senior citizens. He goes through the provided script, but also talks to seniors about their daily routines and anything else they want to share. “You get the sense that they really want to talk and connect with you,” he said.
The silver lining of the crisis, Liu said, is that he has more time in his schedule to volunteer. “I feel like I’m getting a lot out of it as well. It’s really been a highlight,” he said.
Yale junior Julianna Lai signed up to drive New Haven area seniors to non-COVID, critical care appointments, such as for chemotherapy or dialysis. “There are so many ways to be useful,” said Lai, who is living in an off-campus apartment for the spring and summer. “I love chatting with these folks. They’re really sweet.”
The help from Yale student volunteers came at exactly the right time for Interfaith Volunteer Caregivers, a private nonprofit that serves seniors in the Greater New Haven area. The organization, which serves about 900 clients on a regular basis, has been running its door-to-door medical appointment rides program for many years, but its volunteer base (mostly made up of retirement-aged drivers) nearly evaporated when the pandemic hit in mid-March.
“I don’t know what we would have done without these [Yale] volunteers,” said Jane Ferrall, Interfaith’s executive director. “I would have had to close down,” she said.
In addition to mobility issues, about 50% of Interfaith’s clients have no internet access at home, primarily due to cost. “Groups went online and expected seniors to follow them there. But our clients are analog, and we’re all set up to be digital,” she explained. This makes phone calls and face-to-face interactions even more important for this segment of the population.
In addition to getting a ride to an urgent appointment, the interaction is an opportunity to make a human connection and to get a break from the isolation. “The clients really do appreciate it,” Ferrall said. “It lifts their spirits. It makes them feel like someone cares.”
Ferrall has been heartened to see so many Yale students get involved. “The student volunteers have been really professional, devoted and responsive. When things got real, they stepped up,” she said.
“As students who focus on global affairs, we often direct our attention abroad, but the COVID-19 pandemic forces us to turn our focus to our immediate neighborhood and community,” said Tiffany Chan, a first-year graduate student at Jackson and the driving force behind the launch of the platform.
“We realized that in order for us students to effectively support the community, we needed to better and more efficiently organize our volunteering energy and efforts and avoid overburdening the local nonprofits, which was why we designed and put together this platform,” Chan explained.
A key advisor for the project was Jackson lecturer Nathaniel Raymond, a practitioner whose resume includes time as a humanitarian aid worker with Oxfam America, serving in the field in Ethiopia, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, and the US Gulf Coast in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
The platform is actually just one arm of the Yale Emergency Support-New Haven (Y.E.S.) project, formed to support the Elm City in its response to the pandemic. In early March, about 60 Y.E.S. volunteers divided into nine small teams to address areas of critical need identified by New Haven Mayor Justin Elicker. Their work included developing a platform to track personal protective equipment; drafting a plan to quarantine the city’s COVID-positive homeless; writing evidence-based policy memos on various topics; and offering guidance to local businesses, such as help with small business relief loan applications.
The Jackson grad students involved in the Y.E.S. initiative, many of whom came to graduate school after serving in the military or in government and nonprofit roles involved with humanitarian assistance, offered “a Swiss Army knife of expertise” to the city during a “once-in-a-century crisis event” according to Raymond.
The students were fully integrated into the mayor’s emergency operations center, working closely with city officials in the massive pandemic response effort, which Raymond likened to “landing an airplane in distress.”
“It was an incredible hands-on learning moment,” Raymond said. “The students were extremely well-prepared. All of the sudden, theoretical ideas we discussed in class had very real-life implications,” said Raymond. “The students provided value at a moment of great need.”
“The pandemic is horrible, but it’s also opportunity for us to re-evaluate our relationship with the local community, and reshape it for years to come, beyond the current crisis,” Chan said.
The developers of the volunteer matching platform are actively working on expanding its reach to student volunteers beyond Yale, and hope that it will continue serving as a resource to the community long after the pandemic is over.
To learn more about how to get involved in the pandemic-related volunteer efforts, go to NewHavenHelpWithCovid.com.