More side gigs for good during COVID-19

The Penn community continues its efforts to help as the pandemic’s effects stretch on.

Children receive food from people working at a table wearing masks
As the pandemic hit, recent grad Alexandria Brake (holding “Go Team” sign) and colleagues at the St. James School in North Philadelphia began distributing groceries and other supplies to students and their families. (Image: Courtesy of Alexandria Brake)

The most recent edition in this series shared the story of a letter-writing campaign aimed at boosting the spirits of frontline health care workers, a project started by a fourth-year Penn Med student that provides groceries to those most in need and a nonprofit in India that pivoted its efforts to raise money for COVID-19 relief.

In this next piece, we profile a postdoc who launched an online platform to connect people in need to those with the capacity to give, a biology lecturer in the College of Liberal & Professional Studies who reframed her tutoring program to allow it to continue virtually, and a police officer who made more than 1,000 masks—after she taught herself how to sew, plus a recent Penn graduate who distributed food and supplies to students, families, and neighbors of the school where she teaches. 

Charitable connector

As a social psychologist and postdoc in Penn’s School of Arts & Sciences, Daniel Yudkin focuses on moral decision making: how people choose right from wrong. “Thinking deeply about the way that the human mind interprets the difference between right and wrong,” he says, “can make you more attuned to your own emotional responses to perceived injustice or inequality.”

Daniel Yudkin, a Penn postdoctoral fellow
Psychology postdoc Daniel Yudkin’s Pass It On NYC website connects New York-based donors with recipients who have faced hardship during the pandemic. (Image: Courtesy of Daniel Yudkin)

Perhaps that’s why, when he received his federal stimulus check, his feelings were overwhelmingly ambivalent. 

“My livelihood had not been affected because I was able to work from home, so I imagined that others could benefit from the check more than I could,” he says.

Around the same time, Yudkin, who splits his time between Philadelphia and Brooklyn, was having conversations with friends in New York about how to help the city, which has been particularly hard hit by COVID-19. He noticed that, while people were highly motivated to help others, many were unclear on how to go about offering that assistance.

Yudkin decided he could create a platform to provide structure for such altruistic impulses, and Pass It On NYC was born. Together with graphic designer Chelsea Sheridan and web developer Dmitriy Agadzhanov, Yudkin created a website where those who wish to donate can securely give to recipients facing hardship. 

The concept behind Pass It On NYC is grounded in research that suggests that direct cash transfers are an efficient way of helping those in need. “People tend to use that money in ways that are most useful to them,” he says. “I think at a time like this there may be no better way to help than to give people money they can spend as they see fit, whether it’s on food or rent or utility bills or something else.”

Pass It On NYC launched last week and Yudkin and his partners are hoping to get the word out to potential donors and recipients alike. While Yudkin sees this as a pilot effort focused on New York City residents to start, he hopes to eventually expand it to reach recipients and donors in other areas of the country, including Philadelphia.

Online tutor

When Lisa Witmer came to the United States for a biology Ph.D. program more than 20 years ago, her English was limited. She had grown up in rural China, the daughter of farmers who couldn’t read or write. Yet driven by necessity from a new teaching assistant position, she quickly learned English. 

“Every night my husband would help me, and the next day I would teach my students,” says Witmer, now a lecturer in Penn’s College of Liberal & Professional Studies. Decades later, she’s paying forward that skillset.

Screenshot of a video call with two people
Working with her son and several Penn post-bac students, Lisa Witmer, a lecturer in the College of Liberal and Professional Studies, launched an online tutoring program for students in Northeast Philadelphia. (Image: Courtesy of Lisa Witmer)

After hearing from a friend in the School District of Philadelphia about a huge need for secondary English instruction, Witmer began a program focused on reading English, with herself, her husband, and her two teenage children as the tutors. It was growing fast, in scope, student participants, and tutor numbers, and then COVID-19 hit.

As part of her role at Penn, Witmer conducts practice interviews with students from Penn’s Pre-Health Post-Baccalaureate Programs who are applying to medical school; she’ll often ask for an anecdote about how they’ve made a difference in someone’s life. One student described months of daily 5:30 a.m. walks with someone in rehab until that person could run 10 miles. Another rehabilitated a friend, giving him food and a place to live to keep him off the street. 

“You hear these stories, and you just have to do something,” Witmer says. “These students really show that they can change the world in small ways. That’s the kind of life I try to live all the time.” With uncertainty caused by a global pandemic, Witmer thought up a way she could help. To keep up the skills of students no longer physically attending school, she would start another tutoring program, this time online.  

She recruited her son, and several Penn post-bac students who had previously done tutoring, and she added math to the curriculum. More than 100 elementary students, some as young as kindergarten age, were soon taking online lessons. Now a team of 17 tutors, some of whom formalized a group they called Philadelphia Online Student Tutoring, teaches chemistry, math, reading, and writing several days a week, working closely with students from Northeast Philadelphia. 

“I wanted to do this because I want to set an example for my children,” Witmer says, “and to do something for other people that can change their lives. There are many people who changed mine.”  

Mask maker

Penn Police Officer Jenna Ficchi recently hit a milestone: 1,500 face masks.

In just a few months, the patrol officer, who has been with the University for more than four years, bought a sewing machine, taught herself to sew, and became a one-person mask-making operation to help in the fight against COVID-19.

Though she and her fellow Penn Police officers have sufficient personal protective equipment, she kept hearing anecdotes from friends about a lack of this much-needed safety gear. 

Fire fighters wearing masks stand in front of a fire truck
After teaching herself to sew, Penn Police Officer Jenna Ficchi (not pictured) made 1,500 masks, donating many to police and fire departments as well as home health facilities and nursing homes. (Image: Courtesy of Jenna Ficchi)

“One of my friends was issued one surgical mask, which had to be signed out. That’s all they were given,” Ficchi says. “Some places are just not well-off enough to have sufficient supply. But I thought, ‘I can do something about that.’” That she didn’t have the proper materials or even know how to sew didn’t stop her.

Since figuring out the process and logistics, Ficchi has donated masks across the region, to police departments in Delaware and Philadelphia counties, several engines in the Philadelphia Fire Department, and hospitals, home health facilities, and nursing homes.

She’s had some fun with it, too, picking patterns she knows would suit her intended audience. She made masks displaying nearly every Philly sports teams—the Gritty pattern was a big hit—and many superheroes. Her personal favorites include an old-school Eagles logo and another with Wonder Woman.

Initially, Ficchi funded the initiative herself. When demand picked up, she started charging $5 per mask to the general public, money she used to buy fabric for the masks she donated. 

Neighborhood outreach

Alongside completing her master’s of environmental studies degree, which she earned in May, Alexandria Brake worked and lived full time for four years at St. James School in North Philadelphia, where she taught middle school English. A tuition-free Episcopal school for fourth through eighth graders, St. James offers students who live in the immediate neighborhood an extended school day, week, and year, as well as meals, field trips, summer camp, and other programs. Brake is one of six staff members who live on the eight-acre campus. 

Four people wearing masks hold up groceries at a distribution center
With burgeoning donations, Brake and other staff at St. James now distribute groceries not only to the school community but also to neighbors in need. (Image: Courtesy of Alexandria Brake)

When the pandemic forced in-person instruction to stop in mid-March, Brake and her colleagues set up a sidewalk table so their students could come to pick up packets of homework. “But we quickly realized that the biggest thing the kids were going to need wasn’t going to be homework; it was going to be food,” she says.

For years, St. James had offered food during the school day to its students, as well as to their families and neighbors, through a food pantry at the school. But the pandemic inspired even more generosity from donors and more need from the community. 

“We started getting amazing food donations and we would put together grocery bags,” Brake says. “That first two to three weeks we would see every student’s family coming by once a week, and about 15 neighbors coming by. Then we started seeing 30 neighbors come by. Fast forward 13 weeks later; we’re seeing 130 neighbors come by.”

Brake, in addition to her online teaching duties, helps staff the table, which is open three times a week in an effort that shared 300 meals a day. It’s given her and her colleagues a new way to connect with and offer support to the community beyond the school grounds.

“While I’d much rather have seen the kids every day in school, it’s been really nice to be able to connect with their families both at the table and on the phone during this time,” Brake says. “The school had been here for about 12 years, but at this point we have stronger relationships with our neighbors than we’ve ever had.”

This is the fifth article in a series on “side gigs for good.” Visit the Penn Today archives to read parts one, two, three, and four.  If you have a side gig for good to share, COVID-related or otherwise, contact Katherine Unger Baillie.