Bruin Helpers: Students Rise to Meet the Moment

For UCLA students, the past few months have brought about more changes than one could have predicted. The advent of COVID-19 forced most students to move back home and deal with the issues that come with remote learning, social isolation and supply shortages. However, for some Bruins, the uncertainty ignited an altruistic fire within them. Summoning compassion, ingenuity and networks, these UCLA students and recent grads are making a positive impact in their local communities and across the country.  


DiAngelo Soriano (exp. ’21) DiAngelo Soriano’s (exp. ’21) idea for a community service initiative was sparked by seeing his mother help an elderly friend socially distance by bringing them meals and essential goods. “Not every older person had someone looking out for them like that and a lot of them were just stuck in a situation where they don't want to burden their families or they can't get a certain essential service for themselves,” said Soriano, a rising fourth-year student studying biology. Hercules Cares was founded to resolve this issue. The nonprofit organization works in conjunction with the city of Hercules, Calif. – Soriano’s hometown – and other local organizations to connect senior citizens and at-risk community members with volunteers via a website. Soriano and the organization’s executive board began with a social media campaign to find volunteers. To engage with individuals who may not be online, Hercules Cares began flyering in local businesses and investing in promotional materials like T-shirts and banners. Additional support came from the local chapter of the Lions Club and even the city itself, which helped with supplies and advertising space, Soriano said. Future plans include expanding the number of volunteers and the radius Hercules Cares works within, he added. “Our goal would be to help as many people as possible, for as long as the pandemic lasts…” Soriano said. “And hopefully with more funding, with maybe a bigger volunteer base, we could start moving to nearby cities.”


Mackenzie Lowenstein ’20When social distancing measures began in March, Mackenzie Lowenstein ’20 found herself moving back home. Lowenstein, who graduated this year with a degree in psychobiology, immediately noticed that children in the local community were struggling with the adjustment to online instruction. “It just got me to start thinking about the children of healthcare workers, because healthcare workers right now are working crazy hours, day and night, to try to fight this virus,” she said. With this thought in mind, Lowenstein began Front Lines Tutoring, which provides free virtual tutoring to the children of essential workers. Calls to local emergency response units and emails to UCLA departments and organizations led to over 100 tutor applications from students around the country. Now, families of health care workers everywhere from California to New Jersey are employing the organization’s services. Currently, the organization has 250 tutors helping 160 families, although more than 160 K-12 students are being taught as most families have two to three kids, Lowenstein said. Lowenstein said she hopes to grow the organization further through a campus ambassador program and registering Front Lines Tutoring as a nonprofit. “I think, especially right now in this crazy time, it's important to try to support (healthcare workers) because they're supporting so many patients,” she said.


Kyler Gilbert ’20Kyler Gilbert ’20, who graduated this year with degrees in economics and communication, always had the itch to start a business. “I was playing around with some ideas in college in my junior year and I was talking with my dad,” he said. “I remember just asking him, why isn't it easier for people to donate to charities, especially younger people? Why isn't there a more efficient technological solution?” Thus, Charipay, an application that enables users to donate directly to charities, was born in 2019. When the pandemic’s effects began reverberating across the country, Gilbert and Charipay’s core team decided to create a venture solely focused on COVID-19 relief, recruiting more members and building a new website dedicated to their COVID fund. Since PPE was scarce during the start of the pandemic, Charipay began crowdfunding to buy and donate PPE to three hospitals in California and one in Hawaii, where Gilbert is from. The resultant success led the Charipay team to shift focus to donate PPE to nonprofit organizations and public schools as they started to reopen. “As of now, we’re at over 200,000 units of PPE that have been donated and over $625,000 in value,” he said. Given the success of their PPE donations, Charipay is now working on partnering with charitable organizations and offering more personalized services, Gilbert added. “We've created a whole new partnership branch to Charipay where we are liaisons for different nonprofits and we help them with outreach or marketing or getting PPE, whatever it might be,” he said. “We’ve shifted our business model to not just be about technology.”


J.J. (Jennifer) Lee ’13When New York became the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic in America, J.J. (Jennifer) Lee ’13, an alumna and program manager at L’Oreal, found it difficult to witness the lack of masks and PPE available for essential workers. “In between my work calls, I thought about recruiting people to make masks for people in need,” Lee said. “And I thought to myself, okay, who do I know who has sewing machines and scrap fabric at home?” Lee found a solution which was both across the country and close to her heart — a partnership with members of FAST, the fashion club she had been president of when at UCLA. This resulted in United We Mask, a sewing collective made up mostly of UCLA student members of FAST, who make masks for communities in need. When the Black Lives Matter movement began in early June, United We Mask expanded efforts to support social justice initiatives as well. While the organization began as a way to alleviate mask shortage, United We Mask now has multiple ventures, including hosting workshops on how to sew masks and developing video tutorials on alternative protective coverings individuals can recreate with materials they may already have at home. The organization now sees itself focusing on educational initiatives and ensuring compliance with mask-wearing in addition to its original goal of providing PPE to all who need it, said Lee, who graduated with a degree in computational and systems biology. United We Mask is also partnering with UCLA for Volunteer Day this year, she added. “If anyone thinks that their organization is interested in a workshop, we're happy to host one,” she said. “It's a great way to bring people together for a good cause and teach them the skills so that they can make a difference in their communities.”


Maggie Miller ’20In the wake of all the campus cancellations and postponements that COVID-19 brought, Maggie Miller ’20 started Tutor the Future, an organization that connects college students who are willing to offer free virtual tutoring sessions to K-12 students, in order to support these students on their educational journeys during this uncertain time. “It is my hope that this program brings Bruins and other college students together to help younger students of all ages and backgrounds, who are our future, succeed while learning remotely,” said Miller, a psychobiology student. Like many other Bruins, it is Miller’s goal to continue the Bruin tradition of service, leadership and innovation in this world, while striving to make it a better place.


Akshay Anand (exp. ’21)Music has always been a big part of Akshay Anand's (exp. ’21) life. When he found himself back home in North Carolina at the beginning of quarantine, the rising fourth-year immediately started thinking about ways to incorporate music into a fundraiser for COVID-19 relief. Anand, who was also a performer at the first online Spring Sing this year, partnered with World Central Kitchen, an organization which has been donating food to those in need during the pandemic, and reached out to UCLA artists and musicians to create Concerts at the Kitchen Table. The organization hosts free concerts on its Facebook page and viewers are able to donate to World Central Kitchen via a link during each concert, said Anand, who is studying molecular, cellular and developmental biology. Concerts at the Kitchen Table has raised around $10,000 thus far, Anand added, and has helped many artists perform and have a creative outlet in a time when public gatherings are discouraged. “Just knowing that you're making some sort of difference with the passion that you really love was really huge,” he said. “I’ve seen people come out of their shells and perform for the first time on Facebook live.” While Concerts at the Kitchen Table is on hiatus at the moment, Anand has plans to incorporate dancers, backyard concerts and artists from other universities in the organization’s lineup, expanding the experience of online concerts even further.


Sandro Samaha (exp. ’21)Sandro Samaha (exp. ’21), a rising senior studying neuroscience, began the Los Angeles Humanitarian Initiative (LAHI) to alleviate the impacts COVID-19 has on vulnerable sectors of the community. Samaha, alongside the organization’s executive board and growing staff, most of whom are Bruins, focuses on three main initiatives: providing PPE to frontline workers, partnering with local retirement homes to create personalized care packages for their residents and staff members, and donating essential supplies to mobile clinics and homeless shelters. Los Angeles Humanitarian Initiative teamLAHI has formed associations with institutions across the county, including Union Station Homeless Services, the Los Angeles Community Hospital and multiple other medical facilities and retirement communities. Additionally, the organization even has a shop on their website, selling individual and bundles of LAHI masks. These partnerships and efforts have fundraised $50,000 and enabled the purchasing of $30,000 worth of PPE for donations. LAHI plans to recruit more volunteers in the fall and is continuing the search for more partnerships to increase their community outreach and social impact.


Priyanka Naik (exp. M.D. ’21)Zimbabwe native and international student Priyanka Naik (exp. M.D. ’21) is in her final year of medical school. After her clinical rotations were stopped due to the pandemic, she sought out other ways to help her community. “I walked past Mar Vista Park and saw a flyer for Westside Friends. I called the two cofounders, and they were happy to have me and my friends (Charley and Keara) on board,” said Naik. Westside Friends is a volunteer-run mutual aid organization which began in March as a way to help residents of West Los Angeles during the pandemic. Along with cooking meals and performing errands, the group has also raised funds to pay for food and other essentials for neighbors in need. Naik and her friends took on leadership roles and organized the matching of volunteers to people who needed help. When they received emails or phone calls from people in need, they would then match them with a volunteer who could fulfill that request. Most of those needs were grocery runs and prescription pickups, but they also provided phone calls or Skype check-ins. They would try to set up longitudinal relationships so that volunteers could help the same people over time, she added. “We were still able to get to know people over the phone and would learn their favorite treats from the store. We even bought one of them a vanilla sheet cake from Trader Joe's (their favorite cake) for their birthday!” she said. Yet the most rewarding part of the experience was the feedback she received that they were there for them “when nobody else was.” Naik said, “I think we were able to be there for people during their time of need.”


Barbra Lyons (exp. ’23)Barbra Lyons (exp. ’23), a human biology and society student, volunteered every week with the drive-thru food distribution program that took place at the Main Place Mall in Santa Ana, Calif., from March through late June. On average, about 8,000 people would receive a box of food items to take home for their families. These boxes contained perishable items, such as milk, chicken, fruits and veggies, and non-perishable goods, such as pasta, beans, coffee grounds and many other things. “Even though the recipients had to stay in their cars while we put the items in their trunk, it warmed my heart so much to see them smiling and being so thankful for what we were doing,” Lyons said.


Jeff Capps, M.S.W. ’20, Hanako Justice (exp. M.S.W. ’20) and Chloe Horowitz, M.S.W. ’20 are among the group of UCLA students who volunteer for Los Angeles County employees with their call-in line. Launched by the county’s department of mental health and the University, the Public Partnership for Wellbeing line was established to help county workers navigate mental health services. Staffers, who are mostly students and recent graduates, provide referrals for professional counseling services, educate callers on health insurance and even offer advice on how to alleviate pandemic-related stress with mindfulness practices when it is needed. The line was first created to support the county’s first responders and has now expanded efforts to be available for any county employees grappling with difficulties stemming from the pandemic. While it is not meant to be a replacement for crisis intervention or therapy, the free resource is meant to be supportive and accessible.
Jeff Capps, M.S.W. ’20Jeff Capps, who graduated with a master's degree in social welfare from the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs this year, was quick to volunteer for the initiative. “I replied immediately,” Capps said. “I just felt an overwhelming obligation to do what I could to help. This seemed like a very easy way for a student to do something, to maybe make a difference in someone’s life, even if it’s small.” In its first phase, the staff consisted of faculty and professionals from across UCLA. Now, former and current students, many of whom wish to work in mental health services, staff the line daily from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Hanako Justice (exp. M.S.W. ’20)Hanako Justice, who is pursuing a master's in both social welfare and public health, spent the first half of the academic year interning with the county’s psychiatric mobile response team, which assesses the local community’s mental health needs and risks. The opportunity for Justice to volunteer for the wellbeing line came up just as the pandemic began to limit the onsite internship. “It really came full circle for me,” she said. “I’m really grateful that I get to use my experience and continue to provide some sort of resources and service.” There are plans to further advertise the line and expand the service to include text and chat support. According to team members, it is likely that these efforts will lead to a higher volume of calls to the line, which began to receive around 200 to 300 calls monthly during its outset.
Chloe Horowitz, M.S.W. ’20Chloe Horowitz, a volunteer who completed her master’s in social welfare this year, said the confidential and personalized nature of the line is a benefit for those who need it. “There’s an anonymity there, but it’s also about knowing that we are trained to field calls of this kind, we’re interested in making that connection and hearing what’s going on with that caller,” Horowitz said. “I hope that it will prove to be useful to people who need it.”

If you know of other current UCLA students helping their community during this pandemic, send us a note at   Previous Related Articles Bruin Helpers: We See You Bruins Small Businesses: Stories of Resilience How Remote Learning Works A New Delhi Routine: My Indian Summer in Lockdown   Please support the valuable work and services that keep alumni connected to UCLA.

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