It’s been almost seven months since the COVID-19 pandemic took hold, separating members of the Penn community who would have otherwise been together. Yet the physical distancing hasn’t stopped the help from flowing to those in need—to colleagues and family, neighbors and strangers, even animals. The Penn community’s selflessness shines, as documented in Penn Today’s side gigs for good series.
This seventh installment features three examples. One details a family’s quest to add diversity to a bone marrow registry, another tells of a professor who fostered kittens when the demand far outweighed the number of volunteers, and the last showcases a scholar assisting asylum-seekers by acting as a translator.
Morgan Hoke, an assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology, fell in love with the idea of fostering kittens when a colleague of hers found three in her backyard. In July, the organization that came to collect that initial litter, Project MEOW, put out an urgent call for foster homes.
“With COVID-19, many of the clinics that do the neutering and spaying of the feral cats in the area have been closed,” Hoke says. “There was an abundance of kitten litters, more than they normally have. They were desperate to have folks take them in.”
So, on July 18, Finch, Wren, Owl, and Alba T. Ross joined Hoke’s family, at least temporarily. The four kittens, about five weeks old when they arrived, took up residence with Nuna and Charlie, the two dogs already living in the house. “Nuna took to the kittens like they were her own,” says Hoke. “She loved to snuggle them. She played with them. She’s wonderful with them.”
At first, caring for a quartet of kittens presented challenges. They had eye infections. Their food and liquid intake had to be monitored. They required medication. Just like young children, the kittens got into everything. As everyone became more acquainted, Hoke says, the kittens became pure fun. “They didn’t need me except to play with them and feed them.”
Their individual personalities also started to show. “They’re all charming and have their quirks,” Hoke says. “Nuna played the most with Alba because Alba could handle it. But Finch, even though she’s the smallest, she’s quite big for her little britches.”
Project MEOW won’t adopt out cats until they are large enough to get fixed, so once that was true for these animals, they were adopted. Well, at least three of them were: Finch stuck around, turning a temporary shelter into her forever home.
Victor Adams’ teenage son Juwan was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 2016. Several rounds of chemotherapy, radiation, and a stem cell transplant put him into remission, but in 2019 he relapsed.
“At that time, he was told he needed another stem cell transplant,” says Adams, director of payroll operations in Penn’s Office of the Comptroller. “The first time, we had used Juwan’s own skin cells. But now we needed to find a match. No one in my family is a direct match, so we had to do a worldwide search.”
That’s when they got involved with Be the Match, an organization that connects those in need of bone marrow and stem cell transplants with potential donors. But because African Americans make up fewer than 5% of donors, the family realized finding what Juwan sought would be difficult.
“He decided that if he wasn’t able to find a match for himself, he could find a match for one of the thousands of kids also waiting for one,” Adams says.
Juwan’s initial goal entailed adding 1,000 people to the registry, 500 of which he’d hoped would belong to minority groups traditionally less well-represented. He quickly surpassed that, boosted by a segment about the project on “Good Morning America.” “After that aired, we shattered the 3,000 mark. Then the goal became to register 5,000 people, with half being minorities,” Adams says. They hit that target easily, too.
Beyond simply bulking up the registry, Adams says he and his son wanted to educate people on how simple it could be to join Be the Match, which doesn’t require a needle or anything invasive. “It takes just a minute to register,” he says. “If you meet the criteria—that you’re 18 to 44 and in reasonably healthy shape—you can do a cheek swab and send it in an envelope that’s provided to you.
“When they see how easy it is to give a sample,” he says, “people are more willing to give.”
Despite this process increasing the chances of finding a match for Juwan, so far none has emerged. But Adams says his 18-year-old is doing fine, living as regular a life as possible during irregular times. Juwan graduated from high school in May and like so many of his peers started his freshman year of college online this fall.
In the meantime, the family continues its work diversifying the registry, organizing drives like one held at Penn in February before campus closed, improving the odds for those like Juwan one donor at a time.
Connecting with detainees
As a scholar of Latin America, English, and comparative literature professor David Kazanjian of the School of Arts & Sciences has long taken a special interest in the relationship between the United States and countries to the south.
“Over the last few years as deportations have become a more extensive policy of the U.S. in relation to Latin American migrants,” he says, “I got really concerned about the people who were coming to seek asylum, coming to escape conditions in Mexico and Central America that the U.S. is, in part, responsible for.”
There were opportunities to help in New York City, where he lives, but he learned that the need was greater along the U.S.-Mexico border. So, in March 2019, he volunteered with the El Paso-based Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center, and flew to Texas.
Initially he served as a translator—he is fluent in Spanish—for immigrants meeting with their lawyers. On subsequent trips, he spoke directly with detainees, preparing them for what’s known as the “credible fear” interview. This meeting with an asylum officer is how the Department of Homeland Security determines whether a migrant would face serious harm if returned to his or her home country.
Long days hearing the difficult personal histories of detainees was “intense,” Kazanjian says. One man he spoke with had fractured his back and failed to receive appropriate care while in detention. Kazanjian helped connect him with resources that eventually enabled him to attain asylum status as well as successfully sue the government for his mistreatment.
“It sounds like an extreme case, but there are so many like that,” he says. “These stories really stick with you.”
The pandemic halted much of this work, but Kazanjian has found ways to continue assisting asylum-seekers closer to home, providing moral support by accompanying people to their hearings as well as answering calls to a hotline with the New Sanctuary Coalition in New York. He’s also hoping to continue working with Las Americas and the El Paso Immigration Collaborative, though COVID restrictions have made it difficult for immigrant rights organizations to make contact with detainees.
“While these terrible policies continue to get even worse, it has been encouraging to see some great organizing and great coordinating happen in response,” he says. “Amid all of this, that’s one bright spot.”
This is the seventh article in a series on side gigs for good. Visit the Penn Today archives to read parts one, two, three, four, five, and six. If you have a side gig for good to share, COVID-related or otherwise, contact Michele Berger.