Giving Back Makes a Comeback

Students find innovative ways to volunteer in the community in the face of a global pandemic. 'We can still make a difference—even through a screen.'

The three-story brick house at 3100 North Charles Street, like much of the Homewood campus it sits across from, is quiet and dark as the university’s first all-online semester gets underway. The wall calendars are months behind in the shadowy offices within.  

This is the home of the Johns Hopkins Center for Social Concern. Here, in what’s colloquially come to be called the Before Times, executive director Misti McKeehen and her staff worked to connect more than 2,000 Hopkins students a year with opportunities for community engagement and service. Paid internship opportunities for service include the competitive summer-long Community Impact Internships Program. France-Merrick Civic Fellowships send upperclassmen out for a year of community work. In the 60-year-old Tutorial Project, more than 100 Baltimore City elementary school students visit campus twice a week for one-on-one tutoring with undergraduate mentors. The student-founded Baltimore First focuses on a reflective, recipient-focused approach to service and desire to understand the social and racial dynamics shaping Baltimore.

But then came the pandemic and the university-wide announcement ending all in-person classes. “Social distancing” entered our vocabulary and stay-at-home orders came down from the state.  

“All in-person volunteering and service stopped at that time,” McKeehen says over the phone from her home office. “That really changed the operations for us. Students had been going to different service sites, whether it was a senior care facility, or a homeless shelter, or any number of nonprofit organizations in the city.” 

The stoppage was understandable—but also frustrating. It’s not as if the needs that sent students out across Baltimore had gone away. More likely, in a city where nearly a quarter of the residents live below the poverty line, the challenges only intensified as COVID-19 struck vulnerable communities the hardest and upended the economy.  

During this tumultuous time, center staff concluded the best thing to do was listen. “We believe that our nonprofit partners know what’s best for them and it’s important that we are supporting existing missions, rather than creating what we think might be a solution,” she says. “It wasn’t really until this summer that our community partners were ready for volunteers to be involved virtually and have meaningful projects for our students to take on.” 

Meanwhile, some services adapted pretty quickly to the virtual world. “With the Tutorial Project, we were able to pivot to a virtual program and maintain relationships and actually extend the program throughout the summer in a way that we haven’t done in the past,” McKeehen says. “And we have tutors who continued in the fall, meeting virtually one-to-one and helping with homework, literacy, and math support for Baltimore City residents.” 

McKeehen notes that one potential limiting factor is the “digital divide,” wherein some low-income city households may lack the equipment and services necessary to effectively go online, and has been working with other Hopkins offices to share information about available city resources with children and families. 

One notable change for the future that debuted this semester is the university’s long-term solution for streamlining volunteerism: Hopkins Engage, a one-stop, online platform for connecting Hopkins affiliates with community partners in Baltimore seeking help. The system also tracks hours served, providing students with verifiable information about their community service work.

By mid-September, nearly 400 people affiliated with Johns Hopkins had used the Hopkins Engage system to connect with opportunities and/or track their impacts, accounting for more than 3,800 hours of service from June to September. 

So, the community work goes on. Here’s a look at how some civically engaged Krieger School students continued to serve Baltimore from the Before Times through to our challenging New Normal.  

Summer Camp in a Box 

Few childhood experiences match sleepaway camp for sensations and fun, with games and crafts during the day, singalongs at dinner, and marshmallow roasts after dark. And for children whose lives are impacted by a parent’s cancer, such pleasures can offer joyful escape from the stress and challenges of daily life. This is the idea behind Camp Kesem, a national organization that provides free summer camps to such youngsters (ages 6 to 18) with trained volunteer college students as counselors. 

Senior molecular and cellular biology major Christina Boatwright joined Hopkins’ Kesem chapter as a first-year student. “I was definitely nervous to go to camp at first, but everyone was so welcoming and there was a family environment immediately,” she says. “It was an amazing experience.” And beyond the fun and games, there’s a reflective component to camp as well. “We have something called Empowerment Time where the campers are given space to share stories about their parents and connect with one another,” Boatwright adds.

illustration of camp supplies in a box

…we [put] together these packages with all the supplies that the campers would need and one of our volunteers drove them around Maryland to drop them at everyone’s house.”

—Christina Boatwright ’21

Boatwright was back at camp (held in a sprawling facility on the Pennsylvania/Maryland border) after her sophomore year and then became a director of the university’s chapter—the role she was in when the pandemic hit and in-person camps were canceled nationwide. There was never talk of not doing something for the kids since, for them, the stress of COVID-19 came on top of what cancer was already doing to their families, she says. But could any virtual experience replicate the sights, sounds—even the smells—of summer camp?  

“We were like, whoa,” Boatwright says as her team contemplated the task ahead and got busy. 

Their Camp Kesem at Home was held over five days in August. “It wasn’t just a 24-hour Zoom call,” Boatwright says. “We had different scheduled events throughout each day.”

There were art projects, online games, and, of course, time for campers to share thoughts and feelings around cancer. Virtual counselors even got messy in a game where campers got to pick which volunteers had to douse themselves with shaving cream and paint. 

“Being all together in the dining hall and singing camp songs is pretty difficult to recreate over Zoom, but I think it was still fun and I think the kids honestly laughed along with some of the tech difficulties that we had,” Boatwright says. “Many parents and caregivers reached out and said their kids had an amazing time and posted pictures of them doing the activities. Overall, I’m really pleased with how it turned out.” 

The Littlest Victims 

illustration of mom and baby

Many things can stop during a pandemic—schools shutter, offices close, and large gatherings cease. But babies continue to be born, including some prematurely or with health issues requiring time in a neonatal intensive care unit. Aspiring physician Oluwa Oshewa, who graduated this year with a neuroscience degree and is now in a pre-health specialty studies program at the University of Pennsylvania, knows this well from her senior year time as a France-Merrick Civic Fellow.

“We have to choose a fellowship focus area and my interest in reproductive justice and maternal health care in the Black community placed me with MOMCares as my primary service site,” Oshewa says.  

This city nonprofit runs a postpartum doula program, with a “doula” being someone trained to provide physical, emotional, and informational support to mothers. A particular focus is supporting mothers with infants in neonatal intensive care. Before the pandemic, Oshewa’s duties had her meeting mothers in hospitals or their homes, connecting them with services, helping them advocate for their health care, or even just arranging transportation to and from the hospital. “We’d also host events, such as our monthly healing circles as places for moms to get together,” she adds.  

When the COVID-19 clampdowns began, hospitals were one of the first places to restrict visitation. Oshewa’s work had to go virtual—and became even more vital since a mother’s anxiety over seeing her infant in an incubator isn’t reduced when there’s a pandemic raging as well.  

“We were also finding that people were losing jobs and more families needed support,” Oshewa says. “We had to pivot a bit and started doing weekly grocery and baby supply giveaways in communities. And we also started our Friday mini-grants open to all families. So, just $50 mini-grants to help with food and essentials.” 

Working Remotely; Listening Closely  

“Active listening has become so important when doing remote work,” says senior philosophy major Smitha Mahesh, a peer mentor for the Community Impact program and a France-Merrick Fellow. “You can’t give people hugs. You can’t hold people’s hands. You get to look at them on a screen or just hear their voice in a phone call. But even though some senses are lost, if the heart is still there and you are lending compassion and actively listening, you can overcome these challenges.” 

Mahesh feels the limitations of serving remotely have made her a better, more purposeful communicator. But Zoom meetings are a far cry from the face-to-face work she did during her 2018 Community Impact Internship, when she worked with Baltimore’s Child First Authority, a nonprofit that runs after-school programs and does community organizing around issues related to families, youth, and education. “That involved a lot of door-knocking, meeting with people, and in-person brainstorming activities,” she says.  

Last fall, Mahesh became one of a handful of Community Impact Peer Mentors charged with guiding the latest cohort of 25 to 30 interns—work that’s all gone virtual. The decision has since been made to delay the interns’ service until spring 2021 at the earliest. But Mahesh and her fellow mentors were allowed summer internships working remotely with Baltimore organizations. She honed her communication skills at the Baltimore Harm Reduction Coalition (which promotes reducing harm and preserving dignity for sex workers and people who use drugs) and DewMore Baltimore, a youth poetry organization. 

“We had online poetry workshops, open mics, and youth-led conversations around poetry, and activism,” Mahesh says. “Just the simple act of creating an Instagram Live, where young poets of Baltimore can talk to one another across the web and have these deep conversations with national poets, was profound.” 

A Stitch in Time … 

illustration of sewing machine, mask

As the pandemic enveloped the country last April, Anthony Tang—a senior neuroscience major with eyes set on medical school—wanted to find a way to help. A professor told him about a local sewing supply store providing donated supplies and instructions for making face masks.  

“Sewing is something I had never done before,” Tang says, “But, yeah, I guess there is a connection between sewing and surgery.” He took up the needle and honed his skills making more than 20 masks for donation to front-line workers and others in need. He got his friends making them as well, and even his mom. “I called her up and taught her how to follow the instructions and she got very involved,” he says.  

Mentors Wanted 

Students seeking to better understand the city’s challenges launched Baltimore First in 2017. 

“This semester we’re using Zoom to facilitate reflections on specific social issues,” says John Frye, a senior international studies major and the program’s co-director of volunteer management. 

I worried that many students would feel discouraged from volunteering due to the virtual element, time zone differences, and our transition to a new management platform, Hopkins Engage. However, it seems my worries were unfounded.”

—John Frye ’21

illustration of students signing up to volunteer through Hopkins Engage website

His volunteerism began at a senior home and then with the League for People with Disabilities, helping them run Club 1111, a monthly nightclub for disabled adults—dancing under disco lights, a mocktail bar, and quieter corners for socializing. (Yes, folks are now dancing in their living rooms in front of Zoom—but the Club 1111 beat goes on.) 

Many of Baltimore First’s service partners have increased opportunities for tutoring and mentoring, such as the Corner Team, a Baltimore youth boxing nonprofit that runs a STEM program as part of its after-school academic programs.  

Still, as Baltimore First prepared for a semester of virtual-only service, a pressing concern was whether enough volunteers would step up. “So many people feel like they have no power anymore—no ability to make a change,” says Samrawit Getachew, junior neuroscience major and the group’s co-director of recruitment and marketing. “But they can still make a difference—even through a screen.” 

The response at the first virtual volunteer registration in September was more than encouraging, however. “Recruitment this semester performed far better than I think any of us had expected,” Frye says. “While we received understandably fewer volunteers compared to previous years, we recruited around 30 percent more volunteers than we had estimated in our semesterly target.”