Volunteering at St. Anthony’s is an immersive experience. Volunteers travel to the Tenderloin — a neighborhood they might not visit often, or at all — where they meet with our staff, work in our kitchen, and share a meal with our guests. When the COVID-19 pandemic struck last year, all that came grinding to a halt, and our Volunteer Services team was confronted with the same question that confounded event planners everywhere; how to translate an experience that depended on human interaction to the virtual realm.
To keep volunteers connected, the team developed a multi-pronged strategy. For our dedicated regulars, some of whom have been volunteering at St. Anthony’s for decades, staff members called, sent gifts, started a newsletter, hosted online social events, and created a Facebook group. Once restrictions eased and a COVID-19 protocol was put in place, individual volunteers were welcomed back onsite in a limited capacity.
My academic side thought here’s an opportunity for the education part of it, the less hands-on part to be deeper. It wasn’t just background about St. Anthony’s, it was conversations about social justice in our communities.
Stewart Grace, Sacred Heart Cathedral Preparatory high school.
Schools and corporate groups posed a bigger challenge, as social distancing requirements made visits impossible. Reaching out to education partners, Volunteer Services conducted a focus group to determine how they could help students engage in service remotely. Based on those conversations, they created a virtual curriculum focused on issues of social justice.
The curriculum can be tailored to suit the needs of specific schools; a session with St. Ignatius focused on systemic inequality and local activism through the lens of storytelling. Guest speakers included Tech Lab Program Coordinator Alec Chavez, who told stories about the digital divide, and Client Safety Services Manager Wayne Garnett, who shared experiences from his 18-year career at St. Anthony’s.
“We were really trying to find a way to bridge the reality of the pandemic with what is so meaningful about going to the Tenderloin — which is not the opportunity to do service, but the stories people tell about their lives,” says Tamara Setiady, assistant director of community service and social justice at St. Ignatius. The students took what they learned from Alec and Wayne and wrote letters to local elected officials about issues that affect the Tenderloin community.
We were really trying to find a way to bridge the reality of the pandemic with what is so meaningful about going to the Tenderloin — which is not the opportunity to do service, but the stories people tell about their lives.
Tamara Setiady, assistant director of community service and social justice at St. Ignatius high school.
For corporate groups, Volunteer Services created an adaptable program with an emphasis on interaction. A collaboration with our partners at Box resulted in a week-and-a-half long advocacy-education campaign called “Sprint of Giving.” Participants discussed St. Anthony’s philosophy at a remote “Helpy Hour,” went on a virtual tour of St. Anthony’s services, and used gift cards to support local businesses recommended by staff. In the end, they raised $4,400 for our programs!
“It was such a great opportunity to reflect with other Boxers about how we look at the experience of homelessness in our communities,” says Ali Baird, a Box employee and member of St. Anthony’s Young Professionals Council, who helped organize the event.
There are also unique opportunities for corporate volunteers to engage with our community on a more personal level. Volunteer Services recently began partnering with our Workforce Development program to conduct mock interviews for career-seekers with barriers to employment. Participants on both ends have found the experience deeply satisfying.
“I felt like I got to know these individuals more than I often have in other volunteer opportunities,” says Ciera Nahale, a Zendesk volunteer who has participated in two sets of mock interviews. “You’re really able to connect with them and build a rapport.”
As the COVID-19 vaccine becomes widely available, the Volunteer Services team is looking forward to welcoming more volunteers back onsite. But the last year has opened up the possibilities of the digital realm, and they plan to retain some virtual options in a post-pandemic world.
“There are people who might want to engage with us, but can’t come to the Tenderloin,” says Julia Sills, director of volunteer services. “Now we have some ideas about how to create those connections.”