News Release

Lending a hand to heroes

A MN CovidSitters volunteer holds his daughter.

When the Covid-19 crisis broke, medical students at the University of Minnesota and around the country were faced with canceled rotations and online classes. Healthcare workers, from hospital janitors and cooks to doctors and nurses, were faced with keeping up their households during a time of school closings and an onslaught of work that could not be done from home.  

Recognizing the need, two second-year medical students decided to help the helpers. Sruthi Shankar and Sara Lederman founded Mn CovidSitters, a group of medical students who volunteer to help healthcare workers of all stripes with tasks like child and pet care, grocery shopping, and general errands. So far, more than 280 med students and 160 healthcare workers have signed up.

Virtually overnight, the group recruited volunteers, created an app to automatically match volunteers with families, and launched a website with the motto “Caring for your family while you care for ours” to keep the process going. And they pulled off this feat by themselves, without financial or other help.

Each medical student volunteer is assigned to only one family, but a family may have more than one volunteer working with them.

“The response was tremendous. Some of the students were studying for boards,” says volunteer Jillian Millares. “A lot of families said, ‘We can pay you.’ A lot of them are our mentors, people who teach us. Instead of accepting compensation, with support of all volunteers in the field, we decided to direct any donations to other organizations that are helping communities.”

Millares also played an administrative role, calling organizations to get their OK’s to advertise online so that contributions could be accepted.  

Stories from the field

Volunteering has given the future physicians of Mn CovidSitters a life experience that classroom instruction can’t match.

“When we reached out to the volunteer pool for childcare for children with autism, we received an outpouring of messages from students who had experience with this population offering to help these families,” says volunteer Lisa Sharbakka. “When students have told us about changes in their own situations, like a sudden need to quarantine, the volunteer coordination team has worked quickly and tirelessly to find new volunteers for these families. These volunteers are students who are also working to keep up with online coursework, study for exams, and take care of their own families.

“Even though we are missing some of the hands-on training that we would be getting in clinical rotations right now, we are learning how to collaborate, communicate, adapt, and respond to a crisis with whatever tools we have.”

The volunteers as a whole, and those in the administrative section as a group, impressed volunteer Sameena Ahmed-Buehler.

“We need more volunteers to meet the high needs of our healthcare workers,” she says. “I sent out a call for volunteers to help me with recruitment tasks, and within minutes, I was receiving emails/slack notifications/texts/calls with people signing up for tasks. Admin volunteers were similarly prompt and professional with their research on what our options are for obtaining our own background checks, providing CPR trainings [for volunteers], and obtaining 501c status.”

Volunteer Marvin So says he was “seriously humbled” by caring for two young children of a provider.

“As medical students, it is a natural and completely reasonable response to focus on our studies during this crisis—we will be those frontline healthcare providers in due time, and need to have our ducks in a row,” he says. “But I’ve also heard of the ambivalence many people feel about not being able to be of service in the moment. That is a beautiful and giving impulse, and I’m grateful for my peers who organized to channel that energy.

“This organization is a potent reminder that each of us has so much care and nurturance to offer, even without our fancy technology or medical degrees.”