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Summer Youth Volunteers go virtual

Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center's Summer Youth Program will be virtual for summer 2020.
Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center's Summer Youth Program will be virtual for summer 2020.

This week, the Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center’s annual Summer Youth Program kicked-off with one big change—this year’s program is virtual. While the young students won’t be floating through the halls of the hospital, their work will still have an impact on Veterans.

This year’s program, dubbed “Bridging the Digital Divide,” focuses on gaps in knowledge related to Veterans and staff accessing virtual care. With COVID-19, much of the non-urgent care for Veterans at Charleston VAMC has shifted to virtual appointments, utilizing technology platforms that not all Veterans are familiar with.

“I see this going nowhere but up,” said Amanda Mercer, Charleston VAMC Voluntary Service Specialist. “There will be great products created for everyone—a huge benefit for Veterans and caregivers, as well as providers at our VA.”

Mercer developed the virtual Summer Youth Program and has big plans for the 10 students who were selected through a rigorous selection process, focusing on their ability to leverage technology. Selectees were also assessed on their willingness to learn new things, collaborate well with adults, and work well within their peer group.

“Setting up this program took some thinking outside of the box,” said Mercer.

While other hospitals may be cancelling summer volunteer programs due to COVID, Charleston VAMC got creative and gave their program a more focused approach to directly impact challenges the hospital is facing during the pandemic.

Students are required to log at least 50 hours at the end of their six-week commitment.

“I feel certain these students will log much more than 50 hours based on the products we’re asking them to develop,” said Mercer.

The proposed projects for the students include:

  • Helping consolidate VA Video Connect (VVC) resources on SharePoint for a “one-stop-shop” for provider information
  • Creating an information sheet to distribute to Veterans to help them use and access VVC for Primary Care appointments
  • Working with the Caregiver Support Team to create a virtual Caregiver Support Summit
  • Helping the Lowcountry Veterans Engagement Team with the technology needed to support this year’s TedTalks virtually
  • Equipping volunteers with virtual tools by creating and offering training in a variety of online platforms, including WebEx.

Owen Robert is a 17-year-old rising senior at Porter-Guad School in Charleston, South Carolina who

was looking for a digital opportunity to stay involved in the community this summer while also adhering to the COVID-19 recommendations. Robert noted that service is a big part of his school’s culture.

“My generation grew up with technology and I thought I would be a big help at the VA,” said Robert. “I’m excited to make a positive impact on those who have given so much—our Veterans.”

Robert says he has developed skills in school that have given him the tools he needs, like video-editing, to create content that will be helpful for Veterans. He’s looking forward to how this program might shape his interest in a possible future career in health care.

Sophia Leclerc will be a sophomore at North Charleston’s Academic Magnet School and feels personally connected to volunteering at the VA.

“My grandfather was a Veteran,” said Leclerc. “This is a good opportunity to volunteer and help Veterans like my grandfather with technology.”

This year Leclerc gained a lot of experience with online meeting applications through school and is excited to use that knowledge to get Veterans more comfortable with the tools. Her school required 15 hours of community service per student this year, but her commitment through the Summer Youth Program at Charleston VAMC will far exceed that benchmark. Prior to the start of the program, Leclerc had already researched video meeting platforms to prepare, demonstrating her commitment to the Veterans she’ll be helping.

“This is a good chance to understand Veterans’ needs,” said Leclerc.

All 10 Youth Volunteers not only have the skillset needed to educate Veterans and staff on areas to implement technology solutions, but also have the passion to serve Veterans and their community.

“While this is a change from our regular Summer Youth Program, I have no doubt that these students will be motivated to complete their projects,” said Mercer. “These kids are all very hungry to help.”

Charleston VAMC can’t wait to see what these students come up with!

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