Virtual volunteer opportunities offer a way to give back during pandemic

April 10, 2020

Virtual volunteer opportunities offer a way to give back during pandemic

The disruption caused by the COVID-19 crisis has dramatically changed not only what we do, but how we do it. That includes the ability to volunteer and give back to the community. The Center for Community Engaged Learning (CCEL) team, providing academic and beyond classroom opportunities for students to be engaged in the community while at Michigan State University, found a way to continue that work. 

CCEL suspended all in-person community engagement and volunteer opportunities for students due to the pandemic. However, they didn’t just cancel them. The team found a way to offer volunteering opportunities virtually, developing a list of those opportunities for undergraduate and graduate students

Virtual volunteering is a way to continue contributing to positive change. “In times of uncertainty, it is reassuring that we are useful and can serve others,” said Renee Brown, CCEL director. “The pandemic has forced society to consider new and innovative ways of engaging and supporting one another.”

Many MSU students are working toward earning the Spartan Volunteer Service Award, which requires 100 volunteer hours. Serving in virtual placements allows them to continue tracking their community engagement in MSU Civic Life App. CCEL found ways students could continue volunteering without creating roadblocks. Most opportunities that are not local do not require students to register through CCEL since the organizations are well-established, vetted global partners. Students only need to log their hours in the app.

Celeste Ying Rubino, a junior at MSU studying History with a minor in Asian Studies, has served as a volunteer screener with the American Red Cross since July 2019. She has now found other opportunities to volunteer virtually with organizations across the country. While she says the online opportunities seem simpler than in-person volunteering, she has found she is using more critical thinking skills.

Since beginning her virtual volunteering, Rubino has worked for a library in Seattle without leaving East Lansing. She’s also contributed to the National Archives and has identified town halls, emergency rooms, police stations and other locations for the USGS National Map Corps.

“By making sure that these landmarks have the correct address and that they are still open and operating, citizen scientists can help the national government when they are in times of crisis,” Rubino said. “I was volunteering when a hurricane destroyed properties in the southern states, USGS called on citizen scientists to help identify what hospitals were still open in those areas. What amazed me was that this project I was contributing to, was actually helping people in real time.”

Whether looking for a one-time volunteer opportunity or a long-term project, virtual volunteering offers options that include assisting in research projects, transcribing documents for the Smithsonian, writing letters and much more. Opportunities have been added for working professionals as part of the graduate students and working professionals listing, as well as listings for high school students.

“This is a time when people feel like they do not have a lot of control over life and they have hours they didn’t have available before,” Brown said. “We encourage people to take a look. These are actual needs and a way to do something that gives you purpose in your day.”

Most of the virtual volunteer opportunities are with global partners and were already active and designed to be virtual, compared to local volunteering projects that have traditionally been more hands-on, working with clients, serving food, painting a building, working in a community garden and other similar projects. However, local virtual volunteering options have recently been made available with the Tri-County Office on Aging and Volunteer Michigan.

Virtual volunteering is a way to have some predictability and control, Brown added. It also offers an opportunity to contribute in a new way.  

Going forward, CCEL will consider how to build more virtual volunteering opportunities with local partners post-pandemic. Virtual volunteering will not replace in-person volunteering, but it does offer the ability to reach more partners and more volunteers and may prove helpful for students with accessibility needs, Brown said.

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