Side gigs for good endure amid a pandemic

The Penn community’s altruism shines as the pandemic’s effects stretch on.

Since her freshman year, senior biology major Delia Chen has been involved with the Penn chapter of StudentsCare, a nonprofit that connects student volunteers with hospitalized children for regular conversations and activities. During the past year, she had spent three hours each week at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, visiting patients in their rooms and chatting while they painted or played with modeling clay. 

“As soon as we learned that we couldn’t come back to campus in March,” says Chen, now president of the Penn StudentsCare chapter, “one of the first things I thought was, ‘Oh no, I can’t go back to see the kids in the hospital.’”

StudentsCare pivoted, launching a senior buddies program, in which students could have phone or Zoom conversations with residents at senior living facilities. Chen and others have built strong connections in the intervening months and are hoping to start similar virtual meetups with their pediatric buddies soon.

Person with a mask sitting on a bench holding a bowl of green beans next to a sign that says Beth David
Inspired to make her synagogue community more sustainable, Jane Horwitz of the Science Outreach Initiative helped congregants grow green beans for distribution to a local food pantry. (Image: Courtesy of Jane Horwitz)

During hard times, connection becomes more critical than ever. Members of the Penn community have found creative ways to sustain and even grow new connections during the pandemic, in spite of social distancing and physical isolation.

Penn Today’s latest installment of side gigs for good highlights how Chen and her peers brighten the days of those cut off from their loved ones, a gardening effort that enlisted synagogue congregants in growing vegetables to help feed their neighbors, and a partnership between a Philadelphia nonprofit and a West Philadelphia church that offered meals to those in need. 

Bean bags

The pandemic has afforded Jane Horwitz, director of the Science Outreach Initiative for the School of Arts & Sciences, more time to tend her large home garden in Havertown, where she grows rows of vegetables in raised beds. But she was intrigued when she noticed colleague Kristen Coakley Ashare’s social media postings documenting her own gardening exploits, using fabric grow bags to raise veggies.

“I thought, ‘What an interesting concept,’” Horwitz says. Her mind went to her synagogue, Beth David Reform Congregation in Gladwyne, where she and others have worked to promote more sustainable practices. She tapped fellow congregant Noah McAllister, a student at the University of Vermont, to spearhead what they call Bean Bags for Good, a means of engaging the synagogue members in a victory-garden approach to helping people in need of healthy food during the pandemic.

With landscape fabric acquired inexpensively from neighbors, Horwitz set about sewing dozens of 12-inch-square grow bags. McAllister drew up planting instructions and led the charge spreading the word to Beth David members, 30 of whom picked up bags, soil, fertilizer, and green and yellow bean seeds in a socially distanced giveaway. “By July when we did it,” says Horwitz, “beans were about the only vegetable that would grow because of the heat. We were able to squeeze about nine plants in each grow bag.”

Come August, it was time to harvest. Gardeners could keep half of their beans, with the other half pooled as a donation to the Philadelphia Horticultural Society’s Harvest 2020 program. The bean haul found its way to the Narberth Food Bank, “local to us and where we have members and a presence,” says Horwitz, who plans to supplement the donation with the harvest from several rows of her own garden.

Horwitz and McAllister say they hope the bean bags are the first in a number of steps that the synagogue and its congregants can take to be more green, including learning from the extensive community garden efforts of nearby Bethel AME Ardmore Church, how to scale up and further integrate gardening and social action. “From a little seed grows big opportunity,” Horwitz says.

Caring connection

Like Delia Chen, Mandy Chuang, a junior studying nursing and nutrition science, started in the StudentsCare chapter during her freshman year, applying to be a hospital buddy volunteer. “It’s been an amazing experience,” says Chuang. 

Screenshot of a video call with two people smiling
Amanda Chuang, a junior from Princeton, N.J., has regular video calls with her senior buddy, part of an effort by StudentsCare at Penn to build community and connection. (Image: StudentsCare)

With the onset of the pandemic Chuang too was heartened to learn that the national StudentCares organization, founded by School of Social Policy & Practice alum Erica Sokol Carroll, had quickly shifted gears to launch a new senior buddies initiative. 

“Just like for our hospital buddy program, we give the volunteers significant training to prepare them for that experience,” says Tami Robinson, a StudentsCare program manager. “That includes information about the facility, how to make the initial phone call, information about potential health conditions their senior buddies might experience that could impact communication, and suggestions for topics to get conversations going. I have to say that we went into this senior buddy program thinking it would be temporary, but it’s been such a positive experience for everyone that we’ve decided to make it permanent.”

That positivity can be felt on both sides of the calls. For Chuang, who has been making calls from her home in Princeton, New Jersey, before returning to campus for clinical courses, she’s found the weekly calls “super rewarding,” especially now that she taught her buddy how to use Zoom. “My buddy is spunky,” she says. “She loves showing me her cat.”

Chen, of Rockville, Maryland, has had a similarly fulfilling experience. 

“I was pretty nervous at the beginning because I was so used to working with kids and I had never worked with the elderly,” Chen says. “That first call, I asked her if she wanted to participate and I remember she paused a little bit and said, ‘Yes, I’ve been feeling really lonely and I think these calls would be really nice.’ That was heartwarming and made me realize the power of a simple weekly check-in.”

In their regular calls, Chen and her buddy bond over their mutual love of art and their shared experience going to college in Philadelphia.

“It helps both of us take our minds off a lot of the stressful things that are going on right now,” Chen says. “I never really expected to be able to make a friend during quarantine, but I’m really glad I did.”

Summer meals

In his role as a Fox Leadership Program summer fellow at the Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger, E. Jackson Foltz was asked to compile a list of places around the city that distributed meals to those in need. Seeing that churches, synagogues, and mosques were participating got him thinking: What if he initiated a site at Christ Community Church on Chestnut and 40th streets, where he is also a member? 

People putting food into plastic and paper bags from a table. Another table behind them houses crates of other food.
A meal site at Christ Community Church facilitated by recent Penn grad E. Jackson Foltz provided around 100 meals to community members in West Philadelphia and Mantua, areas with few affordable or accessible supermarket options. (Image: Courtesy of E. Jackson Foltz)

With backing from church leadership, Foltz connected the institution to the Nutritional Development Services of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. What resulted was a biweekly meal program that ran from early July through the end of August. Foltz, who graduated from Penn in May with a bachelor’s in international relations, estimates the site provided about 100 meals to community members in West Philadelphia and Mantua, areas with few affordable or accessible supermarket options. 

The pandemic added another layer of difficulty, he says. “Leaving the house, accessing groceries—with there already being barriers to getting food, I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that COVID-19 made it more challenging.” 

Like many spots across the city, the Christ Community Church location distributed its meals solely to children younger than 18 as a supplement to what had been offered from school districts during the school year. “Because we were giving out food every two weeks, we were giving out big bags of meals—10 breakfasts, 10 lunches—to each person,” Foltz says. “It ended up being a pretty big operation.” 

Foltz says the partner organizations are already thinking about reprising and revising the program for summer 2021, next time placing a greater emphasis on more communication with those who might benefit most from collecting the meals. 

This is the sixth article in a series on “side gigs for good.” Visit the Penn Today archives to read parts onetwothree, four, and five. If you have a side gig for good to share, COVID-related or otherwise, contact Michele Berger.