GW Hillel is working with a D.C. community center to help senior citizens register for and receive their COVID-19 vaccinations.
In collaboration with the Edlavitch D.C. Jewish Community Center, Hillel launched the Vaccine Sign-Up Support Project last month, which pairs senior citizens with student volunteers who walk them through the process to sign up for the vaccine. Volunteers said the program eases seniors’ stress of navigating the network of vaccination centers online.
Adena Kirstein, the executive director of GW Hillel, said she began the program after talking with friends from the community center who expressed frustrations about seniors struggling to secure vaccine appointments. Kirstein said she thought the program would be “amazing” to launch through Hillel, which would recruit tech savvy college students who could better deal with glitches or complications on the COVID-19 vaccine registration page.
“We figured, ‘What an amazing match right? ‘Let’s recruit these volunteers,’” Kirstein said. “At the beginning, we were really just trying to test the waters to see what the interest level would be, and it has just blown up beyond our imagination.”
Mayor Muriel Bowser announced last month that seniors above the age of 65 could receive a vaccine through the District’s health department website. The website became overbooked with registrations within a few hours and experienced problems with registering seniors.
Kirstein said the program has recruited more than 100 student volunteers on its sign up form shared through Hillel’s social media, weekly newsletter and word of mouth. She said the program eases seniors’ stresses looking for centers with open appointments and gives them a chance to talk with someone if they’ve been feeling isolated through quarantine.
She said Hillel has been matching students with seniors just at the community center so far, but she has been contacted by other local senior citizen communities hoping to pair their seniors with available volunteers.
“We’re trying to think really intentionally while also quickly about either how we can package the model so others can easily use it or how we can create systems where the turnaround time is quick enough and efficient enough that we can accommodate even more seniors,” Kirstein said.
Kevin Place, the associate producer at the community center, said the program has been promoted to community members via email. He said in the last month, the program has successfully registered more than 40 seniors for a COVID-19 vaccine and paired more than 200 other seniors with students walking them through their registration.
He said some seniors who originally signed up for the program had already received an appointment date by the time a student reached out and did not need help.
He said Kirstein updates a shared document daily for volunteers to check which distribution centers have available vaccine appointments in their partner’s area. He and Kirstein also led a training with volunteers on Zoom about how to speak with seniors and tips for navigating technological issues before they were paired, Place said.
“All of our future plans are based on the idea that we’re going to serve each individual who comes to us with as much care as we possibly can,” he said.
Senior Rachel Amran, a student volunteer, said she has helped at least five seniors register for a vaccine appointment. She said the program pairs her with two new seniors every other day whom she calls over the phone to ask whether they’ve successfully registered for a vaccine and to work to get them pre-registered for an appointment if not.
Amran said the program eases the stress of seniors who do not feel comfortable using a computer to research their state’s distribution plan or open vaccine centers. She said she learned about Virginia and Maryland’s vaccine distribution plans after being paired with seniors from the center who lived outside of D.C. and were confused about the sign-up process.
“It’s great that people are actually wanting to get help and feel that they could find support in Hillel,” Amran said. “I had a conversation today with one woman who said that she knew the call was coming but she was really happy that she and I talked and I had her pre-registered because it made her feel a lot more comfortable.”
Jonathan Kempner, a community center member from Maryland who was helped through Hillel, said he was “anxious” to receive a vaccine and return to his job in Boston, which would not allow him to work in person until he was vaccinated. He said he struggled to find an available appointment because of a shortage of vaccines in his home state.
Kempner said after learning about the vaccine program through his sister, he was matched with a student volunteer who successfully found a location and registered him “a couple hours later.”
“I could not say more about that program,” Kempner said. “It really saved me and allows me now to spend more time with my family and to get back to Boston.”