Within the nearly 800 student organizations at the University of Georgia, community service clubs play an important role in the fabric of campus participation. Due to COVID-19, these organizations were forced to radically change their operations, as close contact with service recipients became impossible. Every organization has responded to these unexpected challenges caused by the pandemic.
Campus Kitchen, a hunger relief program run by the Office of Service Learning, collects excess food from farmers and community partners, which they then use to prepare meals for local seniors facing the food insecurity.
“The first few months… no student could work on campus,” said Campus Kitchen president Kelton McConnell, a graduate in biology, genetics and psychology. “During that time, we had a very limited group of employees that we all trusted … until we got into our new routine that we put in place in the fall.”
Since returning to teaching on campus, Campus Kitchen has reintroduced students and volunteers from the community. The number of participants on each shift is limited and volunteers are required to follow social distancing and hygiene guidelines. They have also prioritized diligent testing for COVID-19 for anyone who comes into contact with customers, McConnell said.
The demands of the pandemic
While adapting to COVID-19 precautions, Campus Kitchen has also taken on the challenge of adapting to higher demand from the community.
“Especially in the senior community, there has been a massive increase in the number of people in need of food service,” McConnell said. “It’s not just localized in our region. It’s national.
McConnell’s observation aligns with national and state trends. According to a 2020 Northwestern University study, the number of US households facing food insecurity doubled during the pandemic. In the state of Georgia, it has more than tripled.
Period Project at UGA, an organization that provides menstrual care products and education to community members in Athens-Clarke County, faces a similar challenge.
The club’s partner organizations, most of which are nonprofits serving homeless and impoverished communities, place monthly requests for menstrual kits that members assemble and distribute. Service president Madison Shelnutt, a junior social work major, said demand for the kits had skyrocketed due to the pandemic.
“[In January] we had 585 requests for kits, about 100 more than what we had before, ”Shelnutt said. “We have much more [requests] than ever, and the only thing that has changed is COVID. “
Despite this surge in demand, Period Project had to limit its volunteer capacity.
In previous years, Shelnutt said the organization held monthly “packing parties” with 20 to 50 general body members in attendance to assemble the menstrual kits. Due to social distancing requirements, these large events have been replaced with two smaller gatherings limited to five participants and a leader each.
Some organizations offering in-person services have adapted their work to be virtual. UGA HEROs, an organization that provides quality care to children who are infected or have a close family member infected with HIV / AIDS, has adopted such an approach.
“We serve immunocompromised children, and a ton of our programs are in person,” said executive director Pierce Pittman, a junior fashion merchandising major. “[In-person programs] were all suspended last year and are still suspended, in the hope that we can come back in the fall.
Pittman said HEROs have replaced in-person activities with events such as online game nights and escape rooms. They also continued their Hang Out with HEROs mentorship program and set up a matchmaking program between volunteers and the children they serve.
Not all groups were able to resume programming. In a typical school year, Aces for Athens runs after-school tennis camps for students at Barrow and Oglethorpe Avenue Elementary Schools. Co-Chair Suma Yarabarla said the pandemic had forced the organization to cease volunteering.
Aces for Athens hopes to start hosting virtual events for students, but they have struggled to get in touch with school administrators and have yet to be able to make arrangements. This has been disappointing for the organization as it wants to continue its involvement in the community, said Yarabarla, a junior student in biochemistry and molecular biology.
“We always have new people trying to message us from the involvement network, and it’s hard to tell them… we aren’t really volunteering right now,” Yarabarla said.
Nonetheless, Yarabarla said Aces for Athens has continued to host socially distanced events for members to encourage continued engagement. This reflects a common silver lining among organizations of an increased sense of camaraderie among club members.
“The people who join [HEROs] now really want to be a part of something and are really keen to get involved. Lots of students are looking for something, and we’re happy to be that for them, ”Pittman said.
A similar sentiment came from Shelnutt, who said hosting smaller events over the past year has actually led to a closer relationship.
“There’s more of a sense of community because you can have conversations with everyone there,” Shelnutt said. “We can have better connections even though we are far apart.”