• SUNY Empire student Jennifer Torres organized an appointment-only blood drive at ConnectLife in Buffalo, where she works as an eye and tissue recovery technician. ConnectLife is Western New York’s only community blood center and federally designated organ, eye, and tissue procurement agency.
“I am sponsoring this drive because right now there is an urgent need for blood in Western New York,” said Torres. “I am an employee of ConnectLife and its mission means a lot to me as a longtime donor. We are a community blood bank, meaning the blood we collect and bank stays local within the community hospitals. When donors step up, they are saving the lives of our neighbors. One pint can save up to three people! It’s amazing to know you’re helping those in need and can make such a huge difference to someone.”
Torres is in her final semester at SUNY Empire. She is on track to earn her bachelor’s degree in biology.
• From Harry Van Arsdale Jr. School of Labor Studies student Charles Tolas:
“I was laid off at the end of March. My girlfriend, Atheena Pimentel, was forced to shut the doors of her midtown tailoring business, Mid City Tailoring, only a week later. We no longer had an income or a job, so we decided to design and produce face masks for essential workers. After a few days of experimenting, we developed the perfect design, both functional and effective. We found excellent materials to use, including polypropylene filtering material, which is the same stuff used in N95 masks. We have adjustable straps, as well as a pocket to change the filter, and they’re machine washable. So far, we have given masks to the NYPD, FDNY, EMS, Child Protective Services, grocery store employees, corrections, sanitation, countless nurses, the United States Army, and many people who are just afraid to leave their homes. We have made and distributed close to 1,000 masks.”
• Sammie Maitland, a SUNY Empire State College student working toward her bachelor’s degree in business, management and economics, initiated a grassroots effort to create avenues for positive connectivity for those struggling with social isolation, stress, and anxiety.
Maitland’s conversations with faculty and staff, and her desire to help others find coping strategies, led to the development of SUNY Empire Connects for students, faculty, and staff. This series of virtual, live programming offers study skills workshops, health and wellness activities, and arts and culture explorations, among many other interactive sessions such as yoga, meditation, storytime for children, and studying and research tips.
“The best thing that you can do for yourself and for others right now is to breathe, and then to be compassionate, and have self-compassion,” said Maitland. “As we adapt and adjust to this new normal, we must take it day by day. Slowly, but surely, we will get through this.”
Participation in SUNY Empire Connects is high, and it has been praised by members of the community for teaching and supporting students and one another.
• William Herrera is a graduate student in his last semester of the social and public policy program. He also works full time for the NYC Department of Education as an accessibility manager. His work primarily involves ensuring that individuals with disabilities are treated equally in accessing and taking advantage of all the programs and services offered by DOE. This includes students, parents, staff, and community members.
During the COVID-19 crisis, Herrera has been volunteering at Flushing Meadow Park in Queens for the NYC Food Delivery Assistance Program. This program makes sure that meals are being delivered to those who cannot access food themselves. Volunteers from agencies including the Department of Education, Department of Environmental Protection, NYC Taxi and Limousine Commission, NYC Department of Parks and Recreation, and the U.S. Army Reserves all work together to help families and individuals in need. Meals are packaged four to a carton and distributed to car-service drivers, who deliver them directly to families. Herrera’s job is to organize the recordkeeping and back-office management.
Herrera says that he has learned a valuable lesson responding to this crisis, challenged daily with shortages in personnel and the skill sets of personnel who are available. He says one can become overwhelmed by the magnitude of the crisis and the extreme need of the community, but they always find a way to make the best of a bad situation.
“My experience at SUNY Empire State College has prepared me to play a leadership role in the tasks presented to me in this crisis. I have managed personnel, organized recordkeeping, and engaged in task management. I have embraced challenges under extremely difficult circumstances,” Herrera says. “The most gratifying experiences are those that we need to work hard to achieve; nothing good comes easy. While I can’t see firsthand the recipients of these services, I know that I played a vital role behind the scenes.”
• Current MBA student and alumna Kelli Di Carmine ’18, who is president of the Alumni Student Federation Board of Governors, is volunteering at the Regional Food Bank in Latham with her family.
• The nationwide shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) for healthcare workers during the COVID-19 pandemic has inspired many do-it-yourselfers to take matters into their own hands.
Sonja Thomson, an instructional designer at SUNY Empire, is one of them.
Thomson has been hard at work sewing homemade masks for her community. She says that even though the Centers for Disease Control recommends that homemade masks should be used as a “last resort” for healthcare workers lacking protection, she is hoping to make a difference by distributing a “last line of defense” should the need arise.
Thomson’s mask is based on a pattern put forward by Deaconess Hospital, in Buffalo, which balances filtering capabilities and breathability. Her friend, Seana Mosher, a physician assistant, took the mask prototype to Saratoga Hospital for health professionals to examine. They made suggestions for improving the mask to get a tighter fit over the nose and under the chin.
She tweaked the pattern and uses social media to distribute it so others can make masks for medical professionals and the general public.
“I’d like to think I’ve contributed most by using social media to inspire my community to sew homemade masks. One person alone cannot fulfill the vast need,” Thomson says.
Thomson also sews masks for local children, and even makes matching masks for their dolls and stuffed animals as a way to encourage children to embrace the masks.
“To me, it feels like such a small contribution,” Thomson says, “but it’s something I can do to help the superheroes on the front line who bravely fight this invisible enemy.”
• Regional Operations Coordinator Jane Cudmore, in Western New York, is volunteering for FeedMore WNY, the local foodbank/Meals on Wheels organization. She’s been packaging food for distribution to meet the increase in demand in the Buffalo area, as well as working with local grassroots charities Random Acts Buffalo and 716 Free Little Pantry Coalition to provide hot meals to those in need.
• SUNY Empire State College Career Development Coordinator Anita Brown ’12, ’15 has been busy sewing at home and donated more than 100 Centers for Disease Control-compliant masks. She sent them to Saratoga Hospital, Capital Region physicians, a doctor’s office in California, and family members in Rome, Italy.
“My cousin reached out to me to ask if I knew of anyone who would be willing to make masks for a friend of hers who needed face masks,” said Brown. “They were days away from running out of their supply. At a time of feeling quite helpless, I wanted to be able to do something, quite frankly anything. This is just a little way to help. I’ll keep making them until I run out of elastic.”
• From Mentor Jeff Ritter, School for Graduate Studies business, management and leadership program, on responding to the current COVID-19 crisis:
“As this crisis continues to unfold, it is important to remember to try as best we can to remain calm and focused on what is most important. In health administration, there are many challenges to face. Those who work in healthcare, whether they are clinicians, support staff, administrators, or managers, have the dual responsibilities of taking care of their families, as well as patients and staff. The current crisis also shows the need for the public and private sectors to work together effectively, and this certainly highlights the need for contingency planning. Teaching online over the years has allowed me to develop strategies and best practices in delivering quality and relevant content, while at the same time understanding the hurdles and time constraints of adult learners. As an assistant professor in the healthcare leadership program, this especially hits home right now. Healthcare workers are called upon to provide managerial and clinical expertise and care at all times, including when there is a crisis. Finally, we need to take care of ourselves and our families, be good neighbors, and help those who are in need. We will get through this.”
• Roxana Toma, an associate professor of social and public policy in the School for Graduate Studies, escalated her volunteer efforts to five days per week in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis. She is a trained and certified Medical Reserve Corps volunteer who has been activated to pick up and deliver bags of groceries from a food pantry to bring to the doorsteps of the needy and vulnerable.
In addition, Toma volunteers at a soup kitchen, where more people than ever are coming to eat, probably, she says, because many have lost their hourly jobs. At the soup kitchen, Toma sorts and bags donations, cooks, and distributes hot meals and bags of groceries. She says she feels like she has two jobs during this public health crisis: her job at the college and one as a volunteer. While it is physically taxing, she feels it is deeply meaningful to “make a difference in these people’s lives when they need it.”
“We’re all in this together,” Toma says, “but, like in any crisis, the poor and low-income people are the most vulnerable. It is our duty to help them when they are hit the worst.”
• Mentor Michele Forte published an essay on “Emerging Paradigms of Hope” in the University of New York in Prague newsletter, beginning, “As I write these thoughts, we collectively co-exist in the unsettling and unending chaos of COVID-19. This global, invisible enemy leaves illness and death in its seemingly indiscriminate wake, with little freedom of movement or from fear. Our collective and individual responses might depend on where we live (the geographic lottery), what natural supports we have (the birth and friendship lotteries), and perhaps, if we are able to draw from a well of inner strength (resilience).”
• Coursera included the college’s course “How to Get Skilled: Introduction to Individual Skills Management” in its COVID-19 response. The initiative is intended to deliver 25 personal-development courses from leading world universities to global learners free of charge. So far, the course has enrolled 15,000 learners worldwide, and there are 3,000 new learners every week. The course was developed in 2018 with the use of a $45,000 IITG grant. The development team included Professor Val Chukhlomin, Associate Professor Dana Gliserman-Kopans, former videographer John Hughes, Instructional Designer Alena Rodick, and Assessment Specialist Amy Giaculli. The course is based on Chukhlomin’s book and JAFAR® software by Chukhlomin and Rodick.
• The college’s Center for Mentoring, Learning, and Academic Innovation offered a webinar with Teaching and Mentoring Faculty Committee co-chairs Gayle Stever and Valerie Goodwin titled “Brainstorming Ways to Accommodate Students During the COVID-19 Crisis While Maintaining Academic Quality” in April.
• Michele Grant, a part-time mentor from Staten Island in the Department of Social Science and Public Affairs, was named a Hero of the Day by the New York Post. She and a friend established a project for laid-off people to contribute their unused subway fares to support others. They have given away more than $15,000 to date.
• Mentor in the School of Business Connie Rodriguez pulled double duty, grading papers and making masks. She has been an active member of Sewmasks Rochester since early March, an organization that donates 200 masks every week to healthcare workers and first responders on the front lines.
She says, “Usually at this time of year I’m just finishing up tax season as a volunteer in the IRS Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program for retirees and low-income taxpayers run by AARP. On March 6, AARP stopped the tax program because of the virus. With that time now open, I asked my well-networked daughter if she knew of any groups sewing face masks, which led me to Tracy Moore in Rochester. Her group is made up of 40 active volunteers who sew, pick up supplies, and deliver 200 face masks a week to doctor’s offices, hospitals, first responders, nursing homes, and other patient-care groups. I joined the SewsMasks Rochester Facebook group and it’s been a wonderful way to meet service-minded people in the Rochester area, as well as serve the community. My daughter Christine has donated most of my supplies and I’m using up cotton fabrics from prior projects.”
• New York State Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo announced that SUNY Empire State College’s then-President Jim Malatras would chair the state’s Reimagine Education Advisory Council to assist schools and colleges in adopting technological innovations to reopen safely in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Provost and Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs Meg Benke also serves on the council as an expert in higher education, particularly online and distance learning.
The 19-member task force was charged with considering how to utilize technology to provide more opportunities to students, how schools can share educational resources, how technology can reduce inequities, and how to better meet the needs of students with disabilities.
“I’m proud to work alongside SUNY Empire Provost Meg Benke, a highly regarded leader in distance learning and innovation in higher education, as well as all the members of the Reimagine Education Advisory Council to help chart a safe reopening for New York state’s students and teachers,” said Malatras. “Our educators have been doing incredible work under extraordinarily challenging circumstances, and we owe it to them to learn from this experience to chart a better future for our students.”
“Thank you to Gov. Cuomo, President Malatras, and everyone on this council for their vision and dedication to bringing innovation and creativity to pedagogy in these challenging times,” said Benke. “This work will have an incredible impact on students of all ages and will create new and innovative ways for improving education.”
SUNY Empire International Education Director of European Academic Programs Sheila Marie Aird wrote an open letter to the community about the impact of the novel coronavirus on members of the community and urging those who are unsettled to seek support. The letter was published in the University of New York in Prague newsletter. It begins, “As I take time to reflect, I continue to consider how we started this semester and where we are at this moment in time. We were all shaken to our core with this unknown, including but not limited to concern for family and friends coupled with the isolation we continue to endure. We were not allowed a practice drill or a set of instructions that we could unpack and know what to expect and how we as individuals should proceed. It has been challenging. Yet, this period in our history has proven to me that we are a community in all ways that matter. As we all are impacted in various ways by this pandemic, we stand together and are here to help anyone that needs support. We are truly not in this alone. If anyone feels unsettled, or just needs to chat please contact the college through UNYP or SUNY Empire.”
• SUNY Empire State College uses several streaming videos from Psychotherapy.net in a number of courses in the School of Human Services. The company has released a series of free videos and resources to help educate others on how to cope with the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. There are resources on HIPPA compliance, telehealth and telecounseling, and using technology to help people with anxiety cope, among others. While many of the videos, podcasts, articles, and blogs are relevant to health and human services, all are accessible and some may be useful for guidance for faculty, HR professionals, teachers, administrative staff, and others.
• SUNY Empire State College joined the SUNY-wide, three-week esports tournament to benefit funds for emergency relief efforts assisting students affected by COVID-19. Campuses participating in the online games competed for a cash prize pool in the #SUNYTogether campaign. Representing their colleges, students who participated competed for donations for their school’s respective student emergency funds.
• SUNY Empire continues to make every effort to support our students in their academic pursuits during this unprecedented time. Student Accounts reviewed its processes and was able to balance maximum flexibility for our students, while controlling receivables and adhering to necessary policies and regulations. After reviewing previous billing data, the office was able to implement numerous changes for the summer term to ease the financial burden on students, such as allowing students with a past-due balance of up to $500 to register for summer classes, an increase from the previous threshold.
• SUNY Empire helped New York state to recruit volunteers from among faculty and staff to meet a pressing need for contact tracers, community support specialists, and supervisors. The college reached out to the community through its internal newsletter and email.
• Former President Jim Malatras held a series of town hall meetings for faculty, staff, and students to discuss the impact of COVID-19 on the colleges operations and to answer questions. He also communicated to the college community online and by email, providing comprehensive updates about the colleges plans and how they aligned with Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s state guidelines. In addition, he shared the college’s plans to help students impacted by the pandemic, as well as how the pandemic impacted college budgets, online instruction, administrative operations, and support services.
• SUNY Empire State College and the SUNY Empire State College Foundation established a COVID-19 Emergency Educational Grant to provide funds of up to $500 to assist enrolled students who are experiencing difficulty completing their studies due to the impact of coronavirus. These grants were made available thanks to the generosity of the college community and our loyal donors. To date, nearly $225,000 has been distributed.
• The college collaborated with the United Way of the Capital Region and Capital District Transportation Authority to collect essential baby items for families in need at a “baby shower” held in a college parking lot in Saratoga Springs. Donors dropped off unused items, including baby formula, clothing, and diapers. The items were donated to children through Capital Region organizations that help individuals and families needing assistance during the pandemic.
• The college welcomed students from SUNY Adirondack to access the internet in the college’s parking lot at the West Avenue location in Saratoga Springs. SUNY Empire has a pathway agreement with SUNY Adirondack that enables students from the community college to continue study toward their bachelor’s degrees. They receive advanced-standing credit for their associate-level coursework and can more quickly achieve their academic goals.