Maria Rhoads was worried when COVID-19 first hit. But the UMW senior decided fear shouldn’t stop her from serving her community.
“I’m low risk as a young person,” said Rhoads, whose first task as a Medical Reserve Corps volunteer was assisting with safety and sanitation at a local voting precinct. “Because of everything that’s happening in our world, I think it’s important for someone like me to help others.”
While many people are staying home, the pandemic hasn’t paused UMW’s passion for service. From encouraging civic participation to feeding families in need to socially distanced river clean-ups, Mary Washington students and alums are stepping up, using the skills and experiences they’ve acquired in college to give back – both in person and remotely – to their communities.
“Our students went from doing their planned work on campus this spring to recognizing a need to help others in the face of the pandemic,” said Leslie Martin, faculty director of UMW’s Center for Community Engagement. “The ethos of civic responsibility has really taken root, and they’re finding new ways to support their neighbors even in situations of such uncertainty.”
Growing up in a family that valued service primed her for Mary Washington, said Julia Geskey, a recent grad who volunteered with the Special Olympics and Fredericksburg Food Bank while at UMW. “The University was full of resources and people to help me continue my service,” she said, citing Martin, who helped her secure an internship this spring with the Rappahannock Area Health District.
The work wasn’t meant to be COVID-related but morphed once the virus took its course.
“I found an immense lack of information online, as well as people who felt they were alone in this unprecedented time,” Geskey said. Much of her internship was spent scanning social media and distributing resources on health and safety measures, food access, unemployment and eviction prevention.
Social media has also been the focus of senior Stephanie Turcios’ yearlong fellowship with the Campus Vote Project. A political science major, Turcios uses tools like the UMW Votes Instagram account, Twitter and Zoom to inform fellow students about upcoming elections, voting laws and civic engagement opportunities.
“My goal is for voting to become second nature for people,” said Turcios, who helped coordinate UMW’s National Voter Registration Day last fall. “The same way you can search for the best sushi restaurant, you can also research a candidate and issues coming up for an election.”
On the other hand, some students have continued to work onsite this summer, like senior Heather Strother, who is assisting Friends of the Rappahannock with socially distanced river clean-ups.
“Even in these unsettling times, my fellow volunteers and I are finding ways to give back and motivate others in Fredericksburg to be good river stewards,” said Strother, an environmental science major.
Freshman Elisa Luckabaugh has been feeding families through her church, but that’s not the only place she’s making an impact. She’s developed a GIS map for people to share their good deeds and inspire others to serve, as part of Volunteer Fairfax’s #GoodConnectsUs campaign.
“I wanted to use my experience and skills to spread positivity,” said Luckabaugh, who took a high school course in geospatial analysis and plans to major in geography at UMW. “Assisting with this campaign is a great way to do that.”
Mary Washington alums often choose to continue service after they’ve graduated, including Megan Turner, a teacher at a Title I school in Newport News, Virginia. As former staff director of UMW’s Community Outreach and Resources service program, known as COAR, Turner honed fundraising skills she’s now using to collect donations to purchase books celebrating diversity for her students.
Basic needs aren’t being met for many of these children, Turner said. The school system provides meals and school supplies, but she and her fellow teachers hope the books will promote social and emotional learning and encourage students to believe in themselves and help others as well.
“We want to help them realize that even at their age,” she said, “they can still make a difference in our world.”