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Wednesday, October 5, 2022


UH community service continues during pandemic

The Bonner Leaders program has shifted their tutoring service projects online for the fall semester, and continues to serve in-person at the Houston Food Bank. | Gerald Sastra/The Cougar

Due to limitations placed on in-person gatherings as a result of the coronavirus, the Bonner Leaders program has shifted their service largely to online formats.

Housed in the Honors College, the service leadership program aims to serve the Houston community through projects that focus on factors that perpetuate the cycle of poverty, including food insecurity, educational achievement and community health.

“Just like most other organizations, we have had to adjust our programming to be predominantly virtual,” said kinesiology senior Rashika Sunku. “We have been challenged to foster a stronger sense of community among our Bonners despite being physically apart.” 

The program’s online programming includes a tutoring initiative at local schools. Bonner leaders engage in virtual SAT tutoring for high school juniors at Stephen F. Austin Senior High School, ACT tutoring at KIPP Sunnyside High School, STEM mentorship at Shearn Elementary and writing mentorship at Briscoe Elementary.

“On the bright side, these transitions have forced us to create a strong infrastructure for everything we do,” said Douglas Erwing, director of the Bonner Leaders program.

The transition to online programming has not been entirely smooth. The program has encountered problems with students struggling with technological difficulties, schools struggling under new constraints and students working through how to be effective online, Erwing said.

“Overall, we are finding that with sufficient planning that includes anticipating challenges and planning for how to address them, we can proceed and continue to carry out our mission pretty well,” Erwing said. 

In addition to its virtual programming, the Bonner Leaders have also continued their in-person service at the Houston Food Bank in collaboration with Riverside Methodist Church. Participants practice social distancing and wear masks while assembling food bundles that will be distributed to those in need, Erwing said.

“We have worked to pivot to enable our students to continue to serve in ways that will be safe for them and their families that still give them the learning opportunities of service,” Erwing said. 

The Bonner Leaders will expand their  engagement with the Houston Food Bank to begin work with the Backpack Buddies program, which distributes food to families in need that would normally be reached through schools.

The program has also placed an emphasis on one-on-one check-ins for the fall semester, as well as the mentorship program that pairs upperclassmen with incoming freshmen members. 

“Though service learning stands at the forefront of what we do, we cannot serve if we ourselves are unable to meet our own needs and it is a fact that we have been living in social isolation,” Sunku said. “So it has become my personal goal to make sure this does not happen to our newest Bonners.” 

The organization has worked to assist its members during this unprecedented time through online sessions where members can ask seniors questions about the program and college in general in an informal setting, according to Sunku.

In addition, the program hosts Bonner Zarties, or Zoom parties, to supplement the loss of social interaction on campus.

“COVID has had a significant impact, obviously, but we have worked hard and found ways to continue serving effectively,” Erwing said. “We planned extensively for what service would look like in a COVID world, complete with lots of contingency planning for a range of challenges that we thought might arise.”

For more of The Cougar’s coronavirus coverage, click here

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