Clare Shin holding a box of face masks next to a sewing machine
Law student Clare Shin is spending her summer making face masks for children in local hospitals.

Stepping up to make a difference

This article first appeared in a summer publication related to the university’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. More articles will appear in The Daily and on the university and school social media accounts in upcoming weeks; visit to see more.

As students, faculty and staff left campus amid the coronavirus pandemic, they remained united, proving yet again what it means to be a community. Here, we share just a few of the myriad ways our campus joined together while staying apart.

Helping Those on the Front Lines

Students in campus health care programs joined forces to address the shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) in local hospitals. Modeled on a program at Georgetown University, they started MedSupplyDrive@cwru and reached out to members of the university community, local businesses and clinics—including retail stores, veterinary clinics and outpatient surgery centers—to secure PPE. With more than 170 student, faculty, staff, alumni and parent volunteers, the group has distributed 16,000 face shields, 1,200 surgical masks, 800 volunteer-sewn masks, 10,400 gloves and 600 shoe covers to hospitals, social workers, a retirement community, local organizations, a team providing masks to people who are homeless, and the Ohio Department of Health. “It has been uplifting to work with so many individuals willing to offer their time and resources to support our colleagues in the hospital,” said medical student Abby Gross, one of the group’s organizers. 

In March, School of Medicine students Mitchell Thom and Lyba Zia wanted to help area physicians, nurses and other health care staff with errands so they could focus their time fighting the pandemic and caring for patients. In less than a week, more than 100 student volunteers signed up for Cleveland Students Supporting Health Workers, offering to shop for groceries; prepare meals; tutor children online; feed, walk and take care of pets; and run much-needed errands. By mid-May, the group had paired students with 49 providers at various local hospital systems, especially offering child care, Zia said. The now nine student organizers plan to continue the initiative in the summer and, if needed, in the fall. “It’s definitely felt nice to have some sort of impact in the community remotely,” Thom said. 

Joining a Mask-Making Movement

After her summer internship was canceled because of COVID-19, School of Law student Clare Shin decided to spend her time making masks for patients at Cleveland-area children’s hospitals. She aims to produce 1,000 masks, or more than 100 per week, using fabrics featuring animals, rainbows, Disney princesses and characters from Harry Potter and Toy Story. “I hope that by making masks ‘fun,’ it will help the kids feel more comfortable and excited to wear them without feeling scared,” she said. And, after learning about the need for masks to help people who are hearing impaired read lips, she began making masks with flexible clear plastic in the center.

The Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences is collaborating with local design company Yellowcake Shop and the nonprofit Lutheran Metropolitan Ministry to make and distribute more than 8,000 face masks to thousands of people who are homeless and to staff at homeless shelters in Northeast Ohio, thanks to a $50,000 grant from the Greater Cleveland COVID-19 Rapid Response Fund, overseen by The Cleveland Foundation. “This initiative really fits in with the Mandel School’s commitment to addressing issues around homelessness, so we were pleased to be involved,” said Rob Fischer, PhD, an associate professor at the Mandel School and the point person for the grant.

When students in the CWRU Engineers Without Borders chapter canceled their summer project in Cruce de Blanco, a small town in the Dominican Republic, they asked what the community needed in the midst of the pandemic. The answer: masks. So 10 students raised $1,360 in five days—enough for Esteban Polanco, president of a regional farmers organization, to purchase and distribute 2,725 masks in the town and surrounding region. When Polanco learned how much students raised, he texted a joyful reply in Spanish that translated to, “My God, you are my heroes!” said Lynn Rollins (GRS ‘95, neurosciences), program director for the university’s Center for Engineering Action. Rollins also separately made about 350 masks for the CWRU community and University Hospitals.

Meeting Needs

Community Meal CLE started on CWRU’s campus to feed people facing food insecurity amid COVID-19. In recent months, more than 50 students, alumni and community members have come together to provide healthy, warm meals to families. As of early May, the organization had made and delivered more than 550 meals and helped 80 to 100 individuals a week. “Seeing so many people get involved with mutual aid has been really exciting,” said Riley Simko (CWR ’20), one of the organizers. “It gives me a lot of hope for the future.”

Before the pandemic began, Satya Moolani, a cognitive science major, worked at Create Circles, a nonprofit his brother created to engage with older adults and help them stay mentally active. Now with restrictions on non-essential visitors to nursing homes and assisted-living facilities, there’s heightened awareness about the need to help seniors feel less isolated. Since April, about 300 students from 32 states—including more than 15 from CWRU—have signed up to volunteer with Create Circles, where they’re paired with older adults and talk with them remotely and create projects together such as memoirs and cookbooks. “The fact that we are able to educate students about interactions with older adults [and address] the problem of loneliness feels amazing,” Moolani said.

Building Community

When classes went remote, Rekha Srinivasan, PhD (GRS ’03, chemistry), invited students in her organic chemistry and biochemistry classes to work on a different kind of experiment: cooking sessions via Zoom. She held five Saturday classes with sometimes as many as 55 students—and, often, their families—attending. “The food we cooked emphasized the use of phytochemicals to lower inflammation and boost immunity,” said Srinivasan, the James Stephen Swinehart, PhD, Professorial Teaching Fellow in Chemistry and senior instructor in the Department of Chemistry. For example, when participants made a spicy cauliflower ginger curry recipe, they also learned about gingerol, a chemical compound found in ginger that has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. Rising senior Matthew Kunas enjoyed applying his chemistry knowledge in the kitchen as well as the sense of normalcy the classes provided. “They also served as a distraction,” he said. “Instead of sitting around worrying and twirling your thumbs, you started chopping up vegetables to create a healthy meal with fellow classmates, albeit virtually.” 

In March, Daniel Lacks, PhD, organized a virtual 5K race to connect his far-flung colleagues, students and friends. More than 50 people in 16 states and the District of Columbia took part. So began weekly events organized by Lacks, the chair of the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering and C. Benson Branch Professor of Chemical Engineering. They bore clever scientific names and included a yoga class via Zoom, a step challenge, a push-up challenge, and, for the grand finale, the Navier-Stokes Giga Challenge (a reference that defies explanation in our small space) requiring participants to do a mix of steps, push-ups, sit-ups and burpees to exceed a pre-set number. Overall, 130 people joined in the six events. “I’m loving these challenges,” wrote Grace Tritchler (CWR ’19). “It gives me something to look forward to during the lockdown!”

—Sandra Livingston