Let's Do This: Commonwealth Students Give Back in Times of Crisis

From the earliest days of the coronavirus pandemic, Commonwealth School students took action. Fundraising, sewing masks, collecting donations: if there was a way to help, students jumped at the chance. Here are just a few of their stories...

With his grandparents living in Wuhan, China, Alex Li ’22 had a unique—and unsettling—window into COVID-19’s ground zero. 

When the virus still seemed like a distant threat to the U.S., Alex knew it was spreading aggressively, and he became particularly concerned about the shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) for health care professionals. 

“Without doctors we’re not going to be able to survive the coronavirus,” he says. “I was just thinking about how I could help in any way.” 

So Alex started mobilizing his friends and fundraising to buy masks for local hospitals. He soon figured out he could cut the middlemen, ordering masks directly from manufacturers and having them shipped to the doctors who needed them most. (Calling busy hospitals to coordinate deliveries was a challenge, he says, but “once doctors know you’re sending masks, they’re grateful.”) 

Alex’s fundraiser ultimately raised enough money—more than $5,000 in just a week and a half—to buy 7,600 masks to be distributed to thirteen hospitals across Washington, Missouri, and Massachusetts. 

His was just one of several initiatives spearheaded by Commonwealth students in response to the coronavirus pandemic. From fundraising to hand-sewing masks to tutoring local children, if there was a way to help, Commonwealth students jumped at the chance...

“I was just thinking about how I could help in any way.” —Alex Li '22, who spearheaded fundraising efforts that delivered 7,600 masks to thirteen hospitals across three states

Tutoring for All Ages

As parents and teachers across the country now know all too well, school closings have created a major disruption in many homes, as schools scramble to adjust curricula, teachers adapt to an online format, and families adjust to homeschooling. For working parents this can pose significant challenges.

That’s why Alan Plotz ’21 created a supplemental tutoring program called the Student Academic Support Network, working with a number of community groups and supporting school systems and families by pairing high-school tutors with local elementary or middle school students. The tutors conduct sessions over Zoom in a variety of academic subjects. Thus far fifteen Commonwealth students have volunteered. 

Alan also encouraged his peers to reach out to their own networks, should they know of any families with middle-school or elementary-school-aged kids who might want some additional academic support or just online supervision. 

In addition to fundraising, Alex Li has also been tutoring and advising seniors at Madison Park High School, a vocational school in Boston that serves a diverse group of mainly low-income students, many of whom are ESL learners, special education students, or both. The abrupt end of school due to COVID-19 has proved especially difficult for them, Li says, and the seniors are also fine with having younger students tutor them. 

Handmade Masks and Other PPE

The dire need for personal protective equipment spurred Dina Pfeffer ’22 and Emi Neuwalder ’21 to action as well. Both have been busy sewing masks and other PPE, while encouraging their classmates to do the same by sharing patterns and other resources. Dina has been contributing to Days for Girls’ Masks for Millions campaign, and Emi has been donating to local health care facilities.

“If you know how to sew and have cotton fabric on hand, this is an excellent quarantine activity that will give you something to do with your hands and provide hospitals with an urgently needed resource,” Dina says. Emi was quick to offer her sewing recommendations and advice to her classmates via email and text as well.

“It's encouraging to see how active and resilient the Commonwealth community has been in continuing to support those in need, especially now that organizations are struggling even more in these uncertain times.” —Amelia Michael ’20, one of three Commonwealth students running the school's annual Supermarket Drive

Food and Supplies

Alan Plotz, Aunnesha Bhowmick ’20, and Amelia Michael ’20 had been planning for Commonwealth’s spring Supermarket Drive for months. The annual event usually sees students and chaperones driving to area supermarkets to collect donations for Our Place, the Salvation Army’s day care for homeless children in Cambridge. 

But as social distancing made an in-person event impossible, the students and staff advisors pivoted, coordinating with Our Place staff in creating an Amazon wish list of items they still desperately needed to support the children and families they serve, like diapers, wipes, and baby food.

“We have been working with Our Place for several years now, and it has been incredible to see the impact that the Supermarket Drive makes,” says Aunnesha. We're grateful that even during this time of uncertainty, the Commonwealth community has come together to help out.”

Alan added, “We have been so impressed by the way families have stepped up to contribute even if it's not in the typical way they have in the past. Students have really been finding ways to use their access to networks to aid in resource redistribution.”

“It's encouraging to see how active and resilient the Commonwealth community has been in continuing to support those in need, especially now that organizations like Our Place are struggling even more in these uncertain times,” says Amelia.

Civic Engagement

A civic-minded community even in the best of times, Commonwealth students want to enact change at a higher level too. In the midst of the spring break holiday, Alan Plotz also encouraged his peers and teachers to contact their representatives in support of several emergency bills under deliberation in the Massachusetts legislature, such as HD4951, an Act to Provide Short-term Relief For Families In Deep Poverty, and HD. 4935: An Act Providing for a Moratorium on Evictions and Foreclosures During the COVID19 Emergency.

Giving What We Can

Since the pandemic broke in the U.S., Commonwealth students, faculty, and staff have shared other volunteer and donation opportunities of various stripes: Amelia Orwant ’21 called on the Commonwealth community to donate old electronic devices so COVID-19 patients confined to their hospital beds have a way of connecting to their loved ones. Amelia Michael ’20 reached out on behalf of an organization she’s involved with, the Cambridge Volunteer Clearinghouse, amplifying their call for in-person and remote volunteers. And Spanish teacher Mónica Schilder, who also organizes Commonwealth’s annual Peru study abroad trip, called on her fellow faculty members to donate to families living in the country’s most impoverished communities.  

Commonwealth’s faculty have been quietly contributing in their own ways as well. The science faculty donated every piece of personal protective equipment they could from their labs, including gloves and face masks, as well as cleaning supplies. And the kitchen staff pitched in by donating gloves, goggles, and a face shield. All items went to the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency’s COVID-19 PPE Donation Program.

Librarian Emma Torres Johnson introduced the school to several digital volunteering opportunities, including one of her “favorite online hobbies,” helping to transcribe material for the Smithsonian. 

“Anyone can sign up and the transcriptions help to make the Smithsonian's incredibly eclectic collection more searchable to researchers,” she says. “I've worked on diaries of arctic explorers and female artists, and practiced my French on the letters of an art dealer and on an 18th century artillery manuscript...It's often fascinating reading, and it helps me feel a bit more productive when I'm plugged in all day.” 

Continuing the Fight

Even with their PPE fundraising efforts behind them, Alex Li and his friends implored their communities: “Please direct your attention to other ways you can help, whether it be sewing masks or helping deliver much-needed food and other assistance to our medical staff, police, paramedic, and fire-crew personnel. Keeping yourself indoors and following social distancing orders is also crucial. One person can save the lives of thousands of others.”

Never expecting to raise thousands of dollars, Alex was blown away by the response and by the outpouring of thanks he received from the health care workers who received their donation. He encourages his fellow students to get involved too.

“Be persistent...you’re more connected than you think,” he advises other students hoping to make an impact. Expect challenges, expect to make mistakes, expect it to be hard. But keep trying, he says. He adds with a broad grin:

“Let’s do this.” 

Learn more about Commonwealth Cares and other student-led volunteer efforts.