Volunteers have been working since January to assist in registering for COVID-19 vaccine appointments.
By Briahnna Brown
Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Elianna Landau felt powerless to do anything but wear a mask and follow distancing guidelines.
For Ms. Landau, a George Washington University senior studying political science, learning about a volunteer opportunity with GW Hillel to help adults over 65 years old to secure vaccine appointments was the perfect way for her to use her skills and resources to help everyone get back to some form of normalcy.
“I think that this opportunity that presented itself really was an opportunity to take control in some way of the situation and use the power that I do have to do good,” Ms. Landau said.
GW Hillel’s volunteer efforts began in January when the DC Jewish Community Center reached out with an idea to pair older adults struggling to obtain vaccination appointments with tech savvy students. The two organizations worked together to figure out how to help, said Adena Kirstein, executive director of GW Hillel. They put out a call to students via email and social media, and there were about 40 responses on the first day from volunteers looking to help with the efforts.
There are now more than 400 volunteers and more than 1,200 individuals who have signed up for assistance. Volunteers have secured over 430 appointments in the D.C., Maryland and Virginia area so far and continue to work through changing vaccine phases.
“For us as an organization, our core goal is to help students consider their Jewish values and think critically about how to use these values and do good for the world,” Ms. Kirstein said. “This project has been the epitome of that.”
The process starts when older area residents, or their family or friends, fill in basic information in a Google form. They are then matched with trained volunteers who take on two clients at a time and reach out to them to assess how much assistance they need, Ms. Kirstein said. Some just need general information on how to find an appointment, others need volunteers to do the work to secure appointments for them. Some already have signed up for their state and county pre-registrations but do not know where else to look.
Noah Bennett, a GW senior studying philosophy with a focus in public affairs, used his skills working on a voter protection team for the Biden campaign to work on the back end for this volunteer effort, he said. He manages the volunteer and senior lists to ensure that everyone is appropriately matched and that no clients get lost through the process. He also sends encouraging emails to his volunteer peers whenever they feel overwhelmed by the decentralized process to secure vaccine appointments, offering suggestions from his experience trying to secure an appointment for himself.
For Mr. Bennett, volunteering on the back end helps him refocus his energy and his skills toward the greater good, he said.
“It just feels so good to put all my late-night anxiety and energy into doing this, because I'm up until 3 a.m. every night worried about when I can get a vaccine,” Mr. Bennett said. “So, instead of frantically searching, let me just spend my time helping [them] get vaccines, because that's especially important.”
Volunteering for the program is not limited to those affiliated with GW Hillel, Mr. Bennett said, and there are various ways to contribute to the efforts that best meet those volunteers’ skills. The program has also been scaled nationally so that people can help clients get vaccinated no matter where they live.
Hannah Silverman, B.S. ’18, M.P.H. ’19, helps with both making calls to secure appointments and helping with some administrative work on the back end. She said that this volunteer opportunity showed her that if you see a problem in your community, that you can help to fix it.
“It's a really low time commitment, but the reward is pretty big and not just for you but also for the people that you're helping,” Ms. Silverman said. “I think if more people wanted to get involved, then we would be able to help more clients.
“It doesn't matter if you're a GW student or alumni, it doesn't matter if you even know what GW Hillel is,” Ms. Silverman said. “You can even be a friend of a friend, there's really no limits to who can volunteer for this program.”