During the coronavirus pandemic, alumni are coming to the aid of their communities—in their hometowns, across the country and around the world. Here are a few examples of the many ways Colonials are impacting lives and inspiring hope.
As a volunteer emergency medical technician (EMT) in Bergen County, N.J., Anthony Arias, BA ’11, has responded to a gamut of calls from elderly people in distress to drug overdoses to traffic accidents. A financial services entrepreneur and Columbian College National Council member, Arias knows every time he climbs into an ambulance, he faces a dangerous uncertainty. “Until you arrive at the scene, you don’t know what you’ll find,” he said.
And that has never been more true than during the COVID-19 crisis. Around the country, already taxed EMT’s face dire equipment and manpower shortages. Still, Arias always answers the bell for his 12-hour shifts. “This is my community—where I have family, clients, a business,” said the former economics and history major. “This is a way for me to give back and help out in their worst hours.”
Arias first received his EMT training while attending GW and now volunteers with a private ambulance organization, providing assistance as needed. “When I get to a scene, I identify the situation, stabilize the patient and get them to a hospital fast,” he explained.
As a crew chief, it’s Arias’ job to access a potential COVID case, entering a patient’s home by himself, checking symptoms and deciding whether to transport the individual to an ER. He doesn’t think about the dangers to himself—even as his masks and safety supplies dwindle. Instead, he focuses on the patients in his ambulance, many of whom are elderly and alone.
“There's a lot of panic and confusion but I try to bring a calming presence to every call,” he said. “We see people who feel they have no one to turn to. I let them know that there’s someone here for them.”
In times of crisis, millions of people turn to nonprofits organizations for basic needs, from health care to food and shelter to a comforting shoulder.
But what happens when it’s the nonprofits themselves who need a helping hand?
During the COVID-19 crisis, many nonprofits are finding their already strained budgets, staff and resources stretched to the breaking point. Worried simply about keeping their lights on, many have been forced to put all but the most vital services on the backburner.
Aaron Kwittken, BA ’92, is trying to help. The founder and CEO of KWT Global, a brand strategy and public relations agency, he is offering pro bono crisis communications aid to nonprofits struggling to stay in touch with donors, volunteers and the people who rely on their services. They include a charity that supports young people with cancer and a nonprofit that provides free legal services to women facing challenges like workplace discrimination and domestic abuse. His firm also produces a podcast highlighting nonprofit efforts.
“A lot of nonprofits don't have professional communicators on staff,” said Kwittken, who majored in psychology and speech communication and is joining the School of Media and Public Affairs' National Council in the fall. “They're very good at providing services. They're very good at fundraising. But they may lack those extra communications resources, such as messaging guidance or determining the best ways to convey difficult decisions like cancellations. That’s where we can step in.”
Kwittken advises nonprofits to continue communicating with their audiences—even if their own strategy remains uncertain. “Don’t go dark,” he said. “Just because you don’t have all the answers yet doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t communicate.” Still, he warns them not to clutter email boxes with repetitive information like hand-washing tutorials. Instead, Kwittken recommends sending specific messages about crucial actions—whether reminding people not to freeze their memberships or asking donors for much-needed support. “Send immediate calls-to-action that are unapologetic and straightforward,” he said.
Kwittken stressed that nonprofit services to vulnerable people are more important now than ever. And he’s hoping that the coronavirus crisis will open people’s eyes to their work. “I think we will come out on the other side of this with a heightened sense of gratitude and appreciation.”
At 6:30 a.m., Sathya Prakash Harihar, MFS ’19, begins his daily shift as a laboratory scientist with Solaris Diagnostics in Lexington, Ky. He pulls goggles over his eyes and covers his mouth and nose with a mask. He dons a hairnet, a lab coat and two pairs of gloves that he duct-tapes to his sleeves so not even a sliver of skin is exposed. Sixteen hours and as many as 900 coronavirus tests later, Harihar sheds his protective gear and hurries home to grab a quick bath and a rushed dinner. When his alarm rings before sunrise the next morning, he’s right back at it again.
“It’s exhausting—that’s for sure,” said Harihar, a forensic molecular biology major who started at Solaris just a month ago and now tests potential coronavirus samples virtually around the clock. “It’s mentally draining because we have to concentrate intently on each sample. But a biologist’s work is physically taxing too. I’m on my feet, moving around the lab, bending over samples. By the end of the day, I feel like I'm an old man with back pain.”
Prior to the COVID-19 crisis, Solaris’ team of 35 employees—including technicians, database engineers and Harihar’s analysis team of seven forensic scientists—examined about 300 cases a day, mostly suspected respiratory diseases like influenza. Now, delivery trucks pull up to their loading dock each morning with more than 1,000 COVID tests from hospitals, nursing homes and health departments around the country. Harihar and his colleagues extract DNA from swabs, apply chemical reagents that target the virus and use a cutting-edge machine called a Real Time-Polymerase Chain Reaction to test 100 samples at once. About 2 to 3 percent are positive for the virus.
Meanwhile, Harihar said, the firm’s supplies are rapidly dwindling—with his team using a week’s worth of items like protective equipment and reagents each day. Still, Harihar isn’t concerned about the dangers of handling the virus. He is more worried about his parents in India, with whom he Skypes during his few off-hours. “What I’m doing is miniscule. There are many people doing a lot more,” he said. “But I’m happy my work can inform medical decisions and maybe help people around the country.”