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How to Lend a (Socially Distanced) Helping Hand this Holiday Season

Thanksgiving Drive

It is the season of giving, and while friends and family members are looking for the perfect gift to give one another, it is also a time when many people regularly set aside time to give back to people in need in the community. For Penn Medicine staff, employees, and students, the spirit of community service is present year-round. Through Penn Medicine CAREs, employees can apply for and receive monetary support for organizations and projects that serve the community.

While the pandemic has restricted in-person activities, Penn has found ways to adapt and still safely give back and volunteer. People looking for inspiration on how to make a difference in this unusual season can find it in these members of the Penn community who have been spreading holiday cheer while limiting the spread of COVID-19.

Tidy Up for Yuletide Donations

The weather is changing and so is the décor for people’s houses. People are now searching through the bins in their basement to find their holiday decorations, illuminating their porches with lights and adorning their doors with wreaths. This can also be an opportunity to search through your closet to find clothes you may have outgrown, donating comfortable, warm outfits for others this winter. Additionally, many organizations accept items like books, games and toys, electronics, and other household items.

Stephanie Edgecombe, administrative secretary at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, has been actively volunteering since she was in high school in 1966. Now, she devotes her time as a volunteer at the Lombard Central Community Outreach Ministry, a church her childhood friend introduced her to.

As a volunteer, she assists with various duties like preparing meals and sorting donated clothing. Among their many projects throughout their year, the church hosts their annual “Give the Gift of a Warm Coat Drive” as well as a toy drive for children in need. She has received Penn Medicine CAREs grant funding to support her volunteer efforts.

“Any warm items of clothing like coats, scarves, hats, gloves, socks, and sweaters are especially helpful to donate during this time,” said Edgecombe. “However, any donation is gratefully accepted.”

Other CAREs funded projects make a difference through donations of items people need. Astounding Woman Warriors, organized by Kelli Davis, a Patient Services Associate at HUP, has provided homeless shelters with necessary toiletries and clothing.  The non-profit Young Men and Women in Charge supplied shirts, khakis, and shoes for economically disadvantaged students interested in pursuing paths in STEM. 

Seasonal Sustenance

Nearly one in four households have experienced food insecurity this year in the United States. To tackle this issue, food pantries and food banks provide nonperishable items to those unable to have consistent access to nutritious meals. For those interested in safely donating to their local food pantries, you can coordinate drop-off times to avoid contact with others, or you could make a monetary donation towards an organization right from your phone or laptop.

At Penn, Sofia Carreno, MSN, Nursing Professional Development specialist - Community Engagement, oversees the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania (HUP) Pantry, with support from hospital leaders including Regina Cunningham, PhD, RN, NEA-BC, FAAN, Jessie Reich, MSN, Colleen Mattioni, DNP, MBA, RN, CNOR, Aron Berman, and Bob Fisher. The pantry provides bags of groceries with breakfast, lunch, and dinner items for employees. Similar food pantries have been set up at all six of Penn Medicine’s hospitals. Even for individuals who have remained employed, external factors related to COVID-19 have caused food insecurity for households, such as loss of a family member’s income due to layoffs, closures of small businesses that sell food to communities, and lunches no longer being provided to children in schools.

Since its launch in May, the HUP Pantry has distributed more than 2,500 bags to employees in need. “It would not be possible without the many staff members and partners who have generously donated to the pantry,” said Carreno. “Food is a basic necessity. We need it for our physical health but also our mental health, which we know during this time has suffered across the nation and especially among hospital workers. We also hope to expand this to patients in the future.”

Groceries have been packaged by volunteers who collect items like canned beans, soup, oatmeal, and pasta. For Thanksgiving, 475 bags of food were distributed with 300 turkey vouchers. The pantry is still collecting additional items including cranberry sauce, gravy, and boxed potatoes for the holidays.

For employees interested in contributing to the HUP Pantry, contact

Along with the HUP Pantry, Penn Medicine has supported employees who volunteer to provide food to community members, both locally and globally. The global project, COVID-19 Hunger Relief in India, supports tribal areas of India with food donations and other basic daily needs. Meanwhile, other programs supported by Penn Medicine CAREs grants including Resurrection Manna Mission and the Darby Mission Food Outreach Program are providing meals to food banks and after-school programs for children experiencing school closures.

Deliver and Design Masks

Since the start of the pandemic, masks have been an essential item for public settings. After constant use, however, a mask can get dirty and must be replaced, or washed if it’s a CDC approved hand-sewn mask.

Kafilat Ojo, MD, a psychiatrist at Princeton House Behavioral Health, recognized the need for masks in the community after moving from New York. As a dedicated volunteer, she wanted to look for opportunities to continue serving her community in her new home of New Jersey, calling local homeless shelters to see what kind of donations were needed. “Masks are an item that people tend to forget about when making donations,” Ojo said. “Some people have to keep wearing the same disposable mask for months because they may not have the funds to access more.”

Ojo launched the self-started program Project Give a Mask to provide boxes of disposable masks to men, women, and children in homeless shelters in the Mercer County/Trenton area. To deliver masks, Ojo makes an appointment with the administrators of the homeless shelter who provide a date and time frame to drop off donations.

Penn Medicine facilities are also accepting donations of disposable masks for patients and staff, either through mail or drop-off locations.

In addition to Ojo’s project, other initiatives, supported by CAREs, have been launched to supply PPE during the pandemic. Medical student Amanda Gottschalk, along with other student leaders of United Community Clinic, and nursing students Page Miller and Alyssa Savarino, have created and delivered COVID Care and Survival Kits to local residents in West Philadelphia that also include hand sanitizer and educational information on the virus.  

The Spirit of Giving

While the majority of CAREs recipients have retreated from in-person volunteering, they have continued to find ways to meet the needs of the community, creating new projects where employees and students can donate goods in COVID-safe ways and donating to existing community programs and nonprofits that have continued safely distanced activities. Even though the pandemic has halted most in-person participation, it hasn’t ceased the spirit of giving and service at Penn Medicine. “To me, it is necessary to lend a helping hand,” Edgecombe said. “I feel it is my duty as a fellow human being to volunteer and give back whenever I can. It’s a way of being connected to something much bigger than ourselves.”

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