UCalgary podcasts feature interviews with experts from our community on the COVID-19 situation.

Episode 13: Volunteering in a pandemic

Apr 23, 2020

Calgary is a community that pulls together when times get tough. In this episode, we talk to Sandra Davidson, dean of our Faculty of Nursing, and Jackie Sieppert, dean of our Faculty of Social Work, about the benefits of helping out in a time of crisis — for ourselves and for the people we're helping. Whether it's a small act of kindness for someone who's isolated or working on the front lines, every bit helps.

Dr. Jackie Sieppert (JS): Even if you think people are doing okay, it is still important to reach out and check in. Whether that's online or through the phone or holding a note up to your neighbor through a window. It could be almost anything. But you need to check in and offer some of those bright moments for people at a time when they may be facing challenges that you weren't aware of.


Dr. Sandra Davidson (SD): And what we do is not for any one of us, it's for all of us as a collective. And remembering that there is power in that collective and helps us to have some agency over what's happening.


Nuvyn Peters (NP): The voices you just heard were UCalgary’s Dr. Sandra Davidson, Dean of the Faculty of Nursing and Dr. Jackie Sieppert, Dean of the Faculty of Social Work. And this is UCalgary COVIDcast. I’m Nuvyn Peters.


Corey Hogan (CH): And I’m Corey Hogan. An award-winning nursing educator, Dr. Sandra Davidson was appointed as Dean of the Faculty of Nursing at the University of Calgary in 2018. Before that, she served in a wide range of environments as an academic and practicing nurse and is well known for her entrepreneurial thought and creative innovation. Dr. Jackie Sieppert was appointed as Dean of the Faculty of Social Work in 2010 and is a highly regarded leader on the UCalgary campus, throughout the province and nationally. He contributes significantly to the community atlarge through active participation in human services boards and committees.


NP: They sat down with COVIDcast to talk about the University of Calgary's response to this global pandemic, particularly as it pertains to the experiences of their students and graduates of their respective faculties, being nursing and social work, as frontline workers. In particular we explored volunteer efforts to help flatten the curve, a role we all know so well, and what role the community can play to support guide and navigate us through this transition.


CH: It was a great way to expand our thinking about front lines, I think even beyond physicians, which everybody understands, and even thinking about what we can do as a community to support all of our frontline workers.


NP: Yeah, it was a really interesting conversation and given that they both as leaders of faculties that are dedicated to service of others and improving the human condition, it was a very thought-provoking conversation.

Jackie and Sandra, thank you so much for joining me today. Both of you have been instrumental in the University of Calgary's volunteer response to this pandemic. Can you both speak to your efforts and your roles to help mobilize volunteer support and the needs on behalf of our students at the University of Calgary?


SD: Sure. I'll start and I think our health professional backgrounds inform us that you always start this kind of effort with understanding what the needs of the community really are. And so very quickly we decided that we needed to craft a needs assessment to understand what we're dealing with so that we could more effectively match those critical needs and prioritize some of the community needs with the volunteers that were willing and able to do various functions and support in different ways. That's where we began, was the needs assessment and also creating a way for volunteers to sign up and be counted so that we can start doing some matchmaking.


JS: In previous crises that we've seen in Alberta, the University of Calgary, stepped forward immediately to ask how we can help our community. This is an even larger crisis and we, again, saw the same response. Immediately we had people coming from every corner of the campus to ask how they could help on campus and in our community. And so our role is simply to organize them and ensure that we meet the needs that are identified by our community. So our effort is primarily around organizing everybody that wants to help.


NP: And so in your experience, both as health care professionals, what are some of the needs that will be identified through this survey and through this assessment tool?


SD: So we really started on looking at those really kind of fundamental needs. Everything from are people physically safe, do they have a place that they can be safe and self isolate if that's the case they're in. We also are aware this unique situation with COVID-19 with the folks that we're all doing social distancing. But that there's significant potential for mental health concerns around isolation and people not feeling socially connected in a way that they usually can and not having those usual supports. We're also looking at things like their technology needs to be able to continue to work and go to school remotely. And so really trying to triage all of those different needs in the various facets of our life, both physical, emotional, social, financial, to try and match with what resources we can provide.


JS: In particular a crisis like this will distance people from the natural supports that they normally have around them. Particularly in areas that related to emotional and mental health supports, social supports generally. So in some ways this effort is really meant to ensure that people do not get isolated and do not have to face those challenges alone. And part of what we want to do is reach out and ensure that people get those supports in a time that is incredibly anxiety provoking and stressful for them.


NP: Yeah, and I know the University of Calgary certainly took a leadership role during the flood and the fire in Fort McMurray, but this public health crisis is quite different with this concept of social distancing. That's really transformed and fundamentally changed the way that we can do service and volunteerism. How do you anticipate navigating that through this?


JS: It's interesting, we are social isolating as you said, and that brings about a different kind of interaction with people in our lives. What I've been encouraged by, is the creativity that people are showing in use of technology, in particular, to stay connected with one another. And again, we've got people across our community who have already started to ensure that they start chats, they connect in with one another every day online. And so I think it's not about ending any of those supports. It's about how we do them differently. And part of our role is to help identify those creative ways to keep people connected.


NP: Yeah. Certainly the use of technology through this crisis has been very fascinating to watch and frankly to come up to speed on in a very short amount of time. How have your students responded and your faculty to this online learning and this new environment?


SD: Well I would say that in a lot of cases our students are taking the lead and are much more comfortable and conversant in maintaining social connections through onlines and through social media, for instance. And our faculty been learning very quickly in a lot of cases. It's been great that the University has had supports in place to help them to learn. And I think it's a really interesting dynamic where, in lots of cases, our faculty are learning from and with our students about the use of technology and how to be creative. And they're supporting each other in different ways that kind of gets to this, it doesn't matter how long you've been a student or how long you've been a faculty that we're always, always learning. And this technology has really highlighted that I think.


NP: Yeah, and certainly it's increased our opportunity to connect with each other and when we can't do so face to face. And as you mentioned, we're all learning. And perhaps now our students can be of volunteer service to those who require more technological support and advice through this as well. I want to get back to what we can do to create supportive, caring, understanding, compassionate communities at a time when everybody is going through a lot of stress and anxiety. What are some tips and advice that you have for our community?


JS: The first piece of advice I would give is that each individual needs to take care of themself, first and foremost, because we can't support others if we are ourselves struggling. So that is top of mind for me. Beyond that though, I think one of the tips I would offer, is that even if you think people are doing okay, it is still important to reach out and check in. Whether that's online or through the phone or holding a note up to your neighbor through a window. It could be almost anything. But you need to check in and offer some of those bright moments for people at a time when they may be facing challenges that you weren't aware of.


SD: As we've said before, this is a different kind of emergency than we've seen in the past by the nature that it's really a public health emergency too. So it creates a whole different dynamic and making sure that, I think it was Brene Brown in one of her recent podcasts, she talked about this being collective vulnerability on a large social scale. And so we're all out of our comfort zones. And what we do is not for any one of us, it's for all of us as a collective. And remembering that there is power in that collective and helps us to have some agency over what's happening a little bit.


NP: So the University of Calgary is sending this volunteer needs assessment for lack of a better word, to try to kind of check the pulse of our community to see where are additional supports and resources required. How do you anticipate, then, navigating the influx of requests that the University might receive through that?


JS: We are already seeing hundreds of people stepping forward to volunteer. We've had a number of people identify needs. The next step for us is to map those against one another. And what we plan on doing is having a small triage team with considerable expertise on that team to review all of those needs that come in, all of the offers to volunteer, and engage in what I would call a matchmaking service and setting some priorities. For us that's the first step I think.


NP: Certainly when people are faced with crises, and we've seen this in the past, not only in our experience here in Calgary, but I think throughout the world, this is a time where the community comes together. And there clearly is a desire to help one another. And this mantra of, we're in this together really rings true. How can people help? I mean, what's the best way for someone to kind of raise their hand and say, "I can do this," or, "I can volunteer." People want to, I think be of value and of service, but might not know the right conduit or medium through which to achieve that.


SD: Well, I know from, as we've talked about, we're using the Better Impact platform that we have available to us at the University for people to go to that site and to sign up. And in that volunteer intake, they can identify what special talents they have, what unique knowledge they have, that we can then use in that matchmaking process to see what their interests and passions are, and connecting them with the people that have needs in those areas. One of the other things we're also conscious of is that there are a lot of other community groups and volunteer organizations out in our community that we may be able to do some matchmaking with there as well to that larger societal and Calgary wide need. And so that's why we're encouraging people to sign up. And once we know who's able to do what, we can do what we can to connect people with those that in need, whether it's our campus community or reaching up to those other agencies that we know are also in need.


NP: It's certainly a critical time to maintain that sense of connection with each other. How do you achieve that through social distancing? I mean, we're going to have to be really creative about the ways that we are helping one another in addition to technology. But getting outside, participating in what physical activity we can given the social distancing requirements. What else can people do?


JS: I can give you two examples that might help spark ideas among others. In my neighborhood, we have a number of neighbors who are self isolated because they've returned from travel or for reasons of vulnerability. And what's been interesting is to see neighbors that are able to go out, actually pick up a few groceries, cook some meals, drop them off on his doorstep. All of which happens in the midst of a text conversation back and forth across neighbors. So that's the kind of thing you can do at a lower basis. We also have an example in our faculty, where we've invited all faculty and staff to participate in what we call the Brightness Challenge. And so we asked them, each of them, to post things that make them smile, whether it's a photo from their wedding day, a music video, whatever it is. And so we are now regularly having people send those things to one another. And it's a wonderful moment in the midst of a hectic day, a day that can be rather dark and challenging. And those little things make a huge difference. And they're fantastic.


SD: I would add, it's interesting, we're doing a lot more conversing via Zoom for instance or Skype. And so when you're meeting with people, it's interesting, you get a little window into their world and the kinds of home offices they have. And one of the things that we've found is, if you have a pet, it's become a common practice to hold up the cat or the dog and wave the paw so that everybody can see. And it's almost like a virtual pet therapy session that we have. And so it's those little things that are reassuring to all of us that there's some normalcy in our lives.


JS: I will add that Sandra, for the last few days has had some beautiful flowers over her shoulder in these meetings. I don't see them right now, but they've added some real beauty to the meetings. So those things are terrific too.


NP: Yeah, it is interesting with so many people working from home, as you mentioned, Sandra, you do get a little snippet into their lives outside of work and who they are as people, as well, which so often during the workday you can be overlooked. Maybe this is an opportunity for us to create more authentic, meaningful relationships with each other.


SD: Yeah, and I think that I'm reminded of one of the first courses that I taught online, number of years ago, but I was really focused on how can I create that sense of connection with students when we're all at a distance. And in the course of valuations, I did have one student say, "we've had more intimate conversations and better connection than if I was in a classroom with a hundred people and you didn't know my name." And so I think we assume by using technology it's going to be less personal somehow. But I'm struck again by how personal it can be if you focus on the relationship. Right?


NP: Right. Yeah, definitely. Now both of you are leaders of faculties whose students are on the front line. Sandra with nursing and Jackie with social work. I want to pivot a little bit, how has this public health crisis impacted your students and their experience?


SD: Well, I think first and foremost, one of the things that we're concerned with, as the university has signaled over and over again is, is the safety of our students. And not putting them in a situation where they wouldn't have the knowledge and skills to be able to manage that. So for a lot of our clinical groups that are more novice in their learning, we have pulled them out of those clinical situations where they may be at risk or contacting people that have COVID and not necessarily have the confidence and skills at this point in their learning journey to understand that. So having to come up with alternate learning activities for them, to help them to progress in their education while making sure they're still not at risk. Conversely, we have our students that are literally weeks away from becoming registered nurses, and they're doing their final practicum, and wanting to do everything we can to help them cross the finish line. Again, in still a safe manner so that they can start contributing to the very real need in healthcare as soon as possible. And many of them are very eager to get to that next stage. So we have a whole variety of challenges wherever people are in their learning journeys.


JS: And we have done many of the same things that nursing has done. Our students all have to complete a professional practicum or placement in the community. And we had many, many students in those placements as this crisis hit. We got direction from our accrediting body about how to handle those situations. And we did a few things. We gave students choice over whether they could attend a placement or not as a way to honor their own need to protect their wellbeing and safety and the wellbeing of those they loved in their immediate families. We also have started to work through how to support them in their learning in this remote learning world now. And we're busy working through that with our current students. And looking forward to the spring and summer sessions where we have incoming students who will also study online now and we aren't sure exactly what that means for placements. I will also say, though, that we have pivoted and I think nursing and other helping professions at the University have done the same to thinking about how our students can support the community in a different way, whether it's through support in contact tracing, support in some of the crisis response agencies, whether it's through volunteerism, or through future placements that students complete as part of their degree. And so I think we've turned to that, now, knowing that across the professions we have ethical obligations and commitments to support the community and this is one of those times where the community needs us.


NP: Yeah, that's a great point Jackie. In terms of both of your professions are truly on the front line. And as a result of this pandemic, they will, these students and your graduates, will experience firsthand crisis response in a very different way. How do you think that will change their experience moving forward or even those who choose to go into nursing or social work?


JS: We can talk about crisis management in the classroom or even talk about it a bit in agencies where students do their placements. But there's nothing like real world experience. And these students who are just graduating now will immediately experience all of the challenges in a major crisis. They will learn some of the responses that are required and it will make them better professionals right from the start, I think. So incredible learning for them. The other comment is based on the experience that we had in previous crises, the Fort McMurray fire, the 2013 flood in Calgary. And what we saw there was that students from the various helping professions ended up working together on the ground. And I've said ever since that we could work very hard to design interprofessional learning experiences and try to deliver those in the classroom. None of those would ever match what I saw in the midst of a crisis. So I fully expect our students and our soon to be graduates, now who are thrown into this, to experience interprofessional learning in a very meaningful and real way and that's going to make them far better professionals in the longterm.


SD: I would add the other piece is just around technology and how technology is used in the clinical world and what counts as clinical practice. We're already on this cusp of tele-health and tele-assessment and using things like Zoom and Skype for consultations with patients or sessions. And so the social distancing, shall we say, is bringing that to bear in a more quick manner that I think our students that are practicing amongst, at this very critical quantum shift time, are going to see that as part of their role and see how it can enable them to be good practitioners in a different way than maybe they would have, had they not had this opportunity.


NP: Anything else you want to add to the discussion around volunteerism and what the community can do to help rally and come together at this time?


SD: One of the things that I was thinking of as we've been chatting is just the psychosocial benefit of volunteering. And so many times, especially in a pandemic when it feels like we're not in control of a lot and things are changing very quickly, and so we don't feel we have a lot of agency, and there's this loss of normalness. There's something very satisfying and comforting about reaching out to somebody else,  an offering of help. And there's a benefit to ourselves in doing that, as well, for our own mental health and wellbeing. So I would just say it's a double word score. It's good for us as individuals and we're also helping the community.


JS: The piece that I would add, Nuvyn, is that over the years, as an academic, I've heard a number of people say, "Universities are interesting, but they aren't directly relevant to the day to day lives of people in our community." I have never thought that that's true. I think we contribute in incredible ways. But there's never a moment more relevant than a crisis like this. And as we've seen in the past, our university has stepped up immediately. Our university community is enthused and passionate about volunteering and supporting the community at a broader level. And so this is just another example of how a wonderful rooted university contributes back to community. And so our community should expect and anticipate that we will help them right now.


NP: Yeah. On that note it, it certainly was wonderful speaking with you both today and I appreciate and value the great work that you're doing, not only within your faculties, but also to create a compassionate and caring culture at the University of Calgary for our community here and beyond. So thank you very much for joining me today, and I look forward to connecting back with you to hear the results of this volunteer engagement that you're doing and leading here at the university.


CH: Thanks to Dr. Sandra Davidson, Dean of the Faculty of Nursing, and Dr. Jackie Sieppert, Dean of the
Faculty of Social Work, for talking with us. And thanks to all of you for listening. You can subscribe to COVIDcast on Apple, Google, or Spotify. You can also find episodes and other community resources including webinars and expert advice at Ideas for future episodes can be emailed to COVIDcast is a production of the University of Calgary. Thanks for listening.



Other ways to listen and subscribe

Apple Podcasts  |  Spotify  |  Google Play