SIUE students and organizations remain dedicated to giving back to the community, even as COVID-19 restrictions continue to limit in-person interactions.

These students’ motivations for volunteering may vary from personal reasons to service requirements for programs and organizations; however, all these individuals are making positive contributions to a society that, for many, feels more disconnected than ever.

For Alpha Phi Omega, a national co-ed fraternity, service hours are a typical requirement for maintaining membership. 

Due to COVID-19 restrictions, this requirement was waived during the spring semester, according to Joel Rahlfs, the organization’s vice president and service committee chair.

Rahlfs, a May 2020 SIUE graduate from Ellis Grove, Illinois, said the group continued to look for ways for its members to volunteer, despite no longer requiring them to do so. 

Rahlfs also said he was surprised by how many opportunities were still out there, especially online.

“I was surprised by the amount of service opportunities that are online because previously I had never really thought about doing online opportunities since we were more focused on doing more in-person work, but the online opportunities opened my scope of what people can do for service, and it was really cool to help people who were far away,” Rahlfs said.

This spring, members of Alpha Phi Omega volunteered through a number of online opportunities such as transcribing historical documents through the Smithsonian Transcription Center and helping researchers with their projects through the website Zooniverse. The organization also made masks for health care workers from their homes, according to Rahlfs.

Rahlfs said Alpha Phi Omega’s national office provided SIUE’s chapter with a virtual service guide containing a list of online volunteer opportunities, which is where he heard about most of these programs. 

Rahlfs also said giving back was not the only benefit of volunteering — it also allowed members to continue interacting with one another.

“The focus I had for service events … was different projects that our chapter would be able to easily communicate with each other for in order to provide people with a little bit of a social break from the pandemic,” Rahlfs said.

The Hospice Volunteer Initiative is another group dedicated to service that had its volunteer projects impacted by COVID-19 restrictions. 

According to Michelle Mwangi, the organization’s media and outreach coordinator, most of the volunteer work they do is with local nursing homes and assisted living facilities.

Mwangi, a third-year pharmacy student from Nairobi, Kenya, said one of the group’s regular volunteer events is to visit nursing homes to spend time with the residents and make them memory books detailing some of the life experiences they share. The organization planned one of these visits for after Spring Break but had to cancel it due to COVID-19.

Without volunteers being able to visit and spend time with them, Mwangi said she worries that some residents may be lonely and missing this social interaction with people who do not live or work within the nursing home.

“I think it’s been a difficult time for them. I know a lot of nursing homes aren’t accepting visitors, just immediate family members,” Mwangi said. “I know there was even a time when family members weren’t allowed to visit, and I know nursing homes depend a lot on this interaction between the residents and other people outside — it’s healthy for the residents. So that time that’s been cut back needs to be replaced somehow.”

Mwangi said the group is exploring options for how to continue serving these communities, dependent upon what guidelines are in place during the fall semester.

“We don’t want to put them at risk … I know we can definitely find other ways [to help],” Mwangi said. “We have to, we have to be creative because we still want to volunteer and we still want to help them out. We just can’t do it the way we’ve been doing it.”

The Honors Student Association is another organization searching for alternative volunteer opportunities for its members, especially with uncertainty still surrounding the fall semester.

HSA’s Service Committee Chair Cara Levingston, a sophomore civil engineering major from Leroy, Illinois, said she has been researching online volunteering options and compiling a list to offer to other honors students. 

Levingston said one of her favorite online service opportunities she has discovered so far is Translators Without Borders.

“Basically, if someone is able to speak fluently in more than one language, they can translate for international organizations that focus on crisis relief, health and education,” Levingston said.

For those looking to do volunteer work to complete a service hours requirement for a program or organization, Assistant Director for Community Engagement Carolyn Compton said the Kimmel Student Involvement Center would accept hours completed online, such as transcribing or translating.

“Some of the really good things people could do are things like that, the transcribing of historical documents and stuff like that, that’s really important … Those things are really necessary, so we would definitely take those things, and I think that’s part of where we’re at now, too, just kind of being flexible with what’s going on,” Compton said.

Levingston said there are volunteer opportunities out there for people with all different interests, it is just a matter of looking for them. 

She said also no matter how people choose to volunteer, they should continue to give back because service is such a uniting force.

“There’s always better ways to help the community [and] the world, especially right now with all the issues — COVID, Black Lives Matter,” Levingston said. “Right now, everyone just needs to be united as a community, and what better way to do that than service and helping one another.”

Compton said the Community Engagement office is working to compile more service opportunities to share with students through their social media pages. 

According to Compton, they are also developing plans for in-person service projects, specifically Service Saturdays, for when students return in the fall.

Compton encourages members of the SIUE community to visit the Kimmel’s Community Engage website, contact their office or follow them on social media to find more information about service opportunities during this time.

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