Despite the distance the COVID-19 pandemic has created between friends, families and acquaintances, students at UC Santa Barbara and across the UC system have volunteered time and resources to bring people together through volunteer projects targeted at communities most impacted by the pandemic.

Despite the distance the COVID-19 pandemic has created between friends, families and acquaintances, students have volunteered time and resources to bring people together through volunteer projects. Max Abrams / Daily Nexus

Frontline healthcare workers have been uniquely challenged by the COVID-19 pandemic, with hospitals at full capacity for months on end throughout California and the United States. Through Project Thank You, volunteers are spreading appreciation for frontline healthcare workers through handmade thank you notes, which are distributed to healthcare workers across the state. 

UC Berkeley fourth-year students Ashley DuBord and Ravi Dashputre founded Project Thank You in 2020. Project Thank You recruits students from across the UC system who are interested in the medical field, like Hailey Sohn, a UCSB first-year pre-biology major, who received an invitation to join in October 2020. 

“I joined because our project is focused on showing appreciation to healthcare workers as they are under immense strain during the pandemic, so messages acknowledging them from families and children can make a world of difference for their morale,” Sohn said.

In her position as community outreach coordinator at Project Thank You, Sohn reaches out to K-12 schools across the nation to collect thank you letters for first responders, which Project Thank You then distributes to hospitals. The organization has received and sent over 1,000 thank you letters from around 900 schools in the past year, according to its website. 

As Sohn continues to work with her team of nine people — seven of whom are UC students — she said she was first interested in community outreach work because she found herself with more time to spare because of the lockdown, wanting to put her efforts towards the medical field.

“I wanted to join because I heard of the hardships that healthcare workers have to endure. People forget that healthcare workers are human, and I want to be there and help support them and appreciate them for their work,” Sohn said.

While healthcare workers are experiencing a lack of support under overwhelming working conditions due to COVID-19, other communities such as the elderly are facing other challenges during this time, like increased isolation. 

One student-led compassion project to combat feelings of isolation among the elderly is Love For Our Elders. Like Project Thank You, Love For Our Elders collects letters and messages of compassion from students across the nation to spread other impacted communities. 

UCSB third-year biology major Eileen Chen joined Love For Our Elders in the beginning of the pandemic. She currently serves as the community outreach coordinator. 

“Especially during this time, I think it’s so important to remind our elders that they’re not alone and that they’re cared about,” Chen said. “I think that the work we are doing is super important for our community.” 

Established in 2013 by then-Yale student Jacob Cramer, Love For Our Elders has more than 50,000 volunteers globally and sent over 100,000 letters to the elderly last year. Chen said the group’s mission is more important than ever during the pandemic, as seniors are at a higher-risk of serious harm from the virus. 

“As a community outreach coordinator, one of my main roles is to reach out to new senior facilities as well as the ones that we are already in contact with,” Chen said. “It’s great to know that I’m playing a role in helping more seniors from around the world receive letters written by volunteers.” 

As UCSB students continue to have a hand in spreading positivity to vulnerable communities, some have had the opportunity to experience the fruit of their compassion projects first hand. 

“My favorite part is receiving the thank you cards that the kids make. We have a messaging channel between the members of Project Thank You and from that, we get alerts whenever a card is sent to us. Seeing the kids’ messages and drawings toward the healthcare workers brings a smile to all of our faces and it reminds us of what our purpose is,” Sohn said.