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University students serve local community as virtual volunteers

Even though the University’s Charter Day of Service for 2020 had been cancelled by circumstances, Assistant Sociology Professor Shelley Grant encouraged her students to serve our community in a different way: By virtually volunteering to help guide local high school seniors through this difficult time.

Grant is an associate with Communities in Schools (CIS), a local organization that for 30 years has helped over 110,000 students find new paths to success and incorporate positive adult role models into case management, literacy, and after school programs.

“CIS knew that their students needed support now that classes have moved online due to COVID-19, so they asked their staff to brainstorm ways that the community could help,” said Grant. “They are specifically targeting seniors because they are missing out on many milestone events like prom, grad night, awards ceremonies, and possibly graduation.”

Ashley Hooper, the Director of Communications and Events at CIS, said many volunteers stepped up to help encourage and support students during this time of virtual learning.

“We wanted to give our community the opportunity to give back in a way that would be super meaningful to local students,” said Hooper. “We are grateful to partner with Duval County Public Schools and work alongside passionate partners and community leaders to help kids stay on track for graduation.”

Grant, who worked with CIS since her previous career in juvenile justice, continues to support the organization’s mission through her Media and Crime service-learning course.

“Each fall semester, students in this course mentor youth in CIS programs at Terry Parker High School and Arlington Middle School,” said Grant. “It is a wonderful partnership that allows for my students to give back to the Arlington community.”

Grant said she’s gotten quite a few students to volunteer virtually this year and looks forward to seeing even more students participate.

“We are blown away from the response we have received so far with videos and letters for high school seniors,” said Hooper. “We are planning to accept these well wishes up until graduation this May and plan on continuing this new virtual congratulations for our seniors in upcoming years as well.”

CIS is also currently accepting donations for students and their families who are facing difficulties during this time. In addition, there are other ways to get involved, such as virtual book reading and virtual guest speaking.

“Virtual book readers will help build literacy and engagement with reading for our students by recording a video of themself reading a children’s book,” Hooper said. “Virtual guest speakers will inspire students and share insights on various career options by answering questions about education and career paths via video.”

Professor Laura Atkins, Assistant Professor of Sociology and Director of Service Learning, said CIS is just one organization that provides a great way for students to virtually volunteer.

“The Service Learning Center recognizes that this current crisis requires unique focus during each of the different stages,” said Atkins. “For the last few weeks, we have been focused on how to best support our students and faculty with successfully completing service-learning activities for the spring.”

Atkins said that ElderSource, which serves the elderly, is searching for volunteers to connect with those who need social support, the United Way is looking for volunteers to sew masks, and University professors have moved community volunteering efforts online.

“Some revised projects include Professor Lana Heylock’s dance students recording solo performance videos that they shared with senior communities, and my own environmental sociology class designing recommendations to increase the sustainability of Arlington Community Garden,” said Atkins. “As we enter into summer, the Service Learning Center will focus on how the JU community can support community partners as these organizations begin with renewed efforts.”

Atkins also said there are ways to help the JU community by donating to the Nellie Student Support Fund for any student that may be in need during this time. She encourages students to visit the @JUServiceLearning Instagram page where they can learn more about graduates who earned the Service Learning Certificate and the Community Service Learning Minor.

“We are really proud of the strength and resilience of the JU community as we all successfully wrap up this challenging semester,” said Atkins.

By Christina Sumpter