Ben Parker/Assistant Photo Editor

The Public Service Center normally operates out of Kennedy Hall. Now, Cornell volunteer organizations adapt, providing assistance from a distance.

March 9, 2021

Providing Assistance From a Distance: Cornell’s Service Organizations Adapt

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Most service organizations previously interacted with those outside the Cornell community in person. Now, with trips and events put on indefinite hold for on-campus organizations, some have found ways to volunteer remotely, while others have focused on educating their members.

Some initiatives have suspended operation altogether, including Into the Streets, an annual two-day service event that involves more than 1,000 students and 80 different community agencies. Their large gathering format couldn’t move online, according to Joyce Muchan ’97, assistant director of student programs at the Cornell Public Service Center. 

In other cases, groups have continued their services in new forms. Student organization Art Beyond Cornell used to go to the MacCormick Secure Center, a juvenile detention center for men ages 14 to 21 in Rush, New York, to collaborate on weekly art projects with the residents to foster self-expression, communication and growth. 

Art Beyond Cornell president Erin Hockenberry ’22 said the organization has written letters and made album covers — something they used to do in person — to send to the MacCormick residents. 

Translator-Interpreter Program organizational chair Jordine Williams ’22 said volunteers have taken to Zoom to continue providing their free translation and interpretation services for those in need both in and beyond Tompkins County. 

“Demand for our program’s services has substantially increased throughout the ongoing pandemic and in the past year alone,” Williams said.

According to Williams, volunteers have been interpreting for domestic violence survivors and homeless shelters, bridging language barriers for local students and translating a national online disaster database for those homebound due to COVID.

Muchan added that the Translator-Interpreter Program has made itself “an asset to the marginalized language community, especially during COVID.”

Katie Panczner ’22, public relations director for the Community Partnership Funding Board, said that the group’s funds have mostly been going to similar organizations as before the pandemic, and she sees those partnerships continuing. CPFB funds grassroots community action projects with money from the Student Assembly.

CPFB Co-President Naman Madan ’22 added that all programs funded by the organization now have to meet COVID safety requirements, making many programs impossible.

Many organizations have also opted to turn inward, educating their members on important issues. 

Alternative Breaks President Bianca Murillo ’21 said that they are focused on teaching members about mass incarceration and other equity issues, rather than focusing on direct service. The Alternative Breaks Program normally sends student volunteers to spend their spring break assisting nonprofit organizations in Florida, New York and other locations.

Murillo said Alternative Breaks didn’t want to burden the organizations they work with — including Harlem Grown, Sylvia’s Place and Goddard Home Delivered Meals — when COVID-19 has led to budget cuts and understaffing. 

Lauren Schmidt ’21, the education chair of Students Against the Sexual Solicitation of Youth, said the group has focused on their educational initiatives through biweekly general body meetings, which focus on specific aspects of sexual exploitation, such as the risk factors and people typically involved. 

Murillo said that educational meetings and initiatives like racial equity training events are a form of activism, and these conversations have become even more vital recently.

“The need for a racial equity lens has become even more pronounced once the COVID pandemic hit,” Murillo said. “As we know, the most disadvantaged communities, which are predominantly Black and brown communities, have been affected the most.”

Some organizations have been spending the semester planning for the future. Julio Rodriguez grad, graduate assistant for K-12 outreach at the Einaudi Center’s Afterschool Language and Culture Program, said his organization isn’t currently doing its usual after-school programs with local students because educators said they weren’t ready to accept student volunteers. 

“Teachers themselves are struggling to keep on track with curriculum plans, their students are Zoom-fatigued, and they do not have the time to devote to an additional project,” Rodriguez said.

After COVID-19 forced the Afterschool Language and Culture Program to suspend their in-person programs, they decided to organize workshops to train more Cornellians to volunteer in person come fall 2021. 

Similarly, Early College Awareness, which educates middle and high school students about the college application process, has been building a curriculum for a series of information sessions on the college application process which they plan to give to tenth graders at Ithaca High School next year. 

The program is also pre-recording college application resources and creating a virtual tour of Cornell for students at Spencer-Van Etten and Waverly Middle Schools to replace the in-person tour they would usually receive.

According to Muchan, in spite of this year’s challenges, the students in Cornell’s many service organizations have done incredible work. 

“Like all communities we are grieving and redefining our lives due to COVID and racial inequality awareness and understanding,” Murchan wrote. “Service I believe [is] one of the keys to healing.”