A look at how the VCU community is sharing the love and giving back in difficult times

In spite of the pandemic, students, faculty and staff — and of course those loveable therapy dogs at VCU Medical Center — are creating thoughtful moments.

Valentine cards with photos of a therapy dog, a bouquet of sunflowers, and two people working on ...
From Dogs on Call to thoughtful flower bouquets, the VCU community is finding creative ways to share the love this winter.

With Valentine’s Day this weekend and the pandemic holding strong, it’s more important than ever to share the love with others in safe but meaningful ways. This year the Virginia Commonwealth University community is doing just that, using expertise and innovation to create thoughtful moments.

Therapy dog Darcy surrounded by packages of cookies.
Therapy dog Darcy keeps a watchful eye on packages of cookies being prepared for delivery to VCU Health team members. (Courtesy photo)

Dogs on Call keep delivering 

The therapy dogs in Dogs on Call continue to put smiles on faces and boost morale at VCU Medical Center with their morning and afternoon Zoom meetings — aptly called “Pups and Puplattes” and “Virtual Picnic With Pups.” The Zoom sessions provide a safe and socially distanced opportunity for staff to join in and catch up on how the therapy dogs are doing. 

While they can’t visit the hospital as they normally would, the adorable pooches are conducting virtual visits with patients and staff who request a visit to brighten their day. One of the favorite love-related activities is Operation Cookie where Dogs on Call teams — think humans — purchase individually wrapped cookies and attach one of the Dogs on Call playing cards to the package. In case you’re wondering, each therapy dog has a card with their picture and name that is usually given to patients and staff when the dogs visit. 

The cookies are distributed to VCU Health staff as a sign of support and to boost morale. Last year the teams made 46 cookie deliveries to over 25 units throughout VCU Health, and surprise deliveries are continuing at random this year. So be on the lookout.

Eleanor Love poses next to a cart full of flowers.
Simple Sunflower founder Eleanor Love uses flowers leftover from local events to make beautiful arrangements for hospital patients. (Photo courtesy of Eleanor Love)

The Simple Sunflower is a bouquet of love 

Fourth-year VCU medical student Eleanor Love is sharing the love by gifting fresh flowers to VCU Health’s most seriously ill patients. Her passions for patient care and working with flowers led her to create The Simple Sunflower

She started the program at the beginning of her third year, and now the floral arrangements are a regular staple on the delivery carts of VCU Health volunteers. To date, volunteers have distributed nearly 500 floral arrangements to patients in VCU’s palliative, cardiac and mother and infant units.

The flowers are largely donated by local venues, the leftover floral bounty of weddings and special events. Love and her team, a cadre of fellow medical students as well as undergraduate students from VCU’s Monroe Park Campus, donate weekend mornings to create the petite floral arrangements, while VCU’s trained volunteers take charge of distributing the bouquets to patients.

The Simple Sunflower is still active, though it has had fewer service events and flower deliveries over the past few months because winter is traditionally a slow wedding and events season. In addition, several events have been postponed due to COVID-19 concerns. However, Love and her team are actively working with community partners to schedule flower deliveries this spring.

From left: Akhila Kunuthuru, Jennifer Duong and Sneha Gade.
From left: Akhila Kunuthuru, Jennifer Duong and Sneha Gade, the co-founders of Virtual Volunteer at VCU. (Courtesy photos)

Virtual Volunteer at VCU helps students help the community

VCU Honors College students Jennifer Duong, Sneha Gade and Akhila Kunuthuru are passionate about volunteering and know that a little act of kindness goes a long way. Last summer, with that in mind, they decided to create an organization to help VCU students continue to make a difference even if they were away from campus because of the pandemic. 

The three founded the student organization Virtual Volunteer at VCU to help organizations struggling to find volunteers connect with VCU students who want to become engaged in the Richmond community while getting to know their peers.

The organization works with 13 community partners including Circles RVA, which helps those in poverty; The Doorways, which provides lodging to people who need to be close to loved ones in the hospital; and Dominion Place, which provides housing for older adults as well as ongoing fundraisers with the organization One Simple Wish, which helps children who have suffered abuse. Students volunteering through Virtual Volunteer at VCU amassed over 1,000 hours of community service during the fall semester.

A student participates in a videoconference with a person while seated on a bench near near the Shafer Court Dining Center.
Miranda Savioli, a VCU medical student, and retirement community resident Joan Kerby (on screen) chat via video in November 2020. (Kevin Morley, University Marketing)

Brightening the day for local seniors

Because of the pandemic, previously active, socially engaged retirees in assisted- and independent-living facilities found themselves cut off from friends, families and fellow residents. During lockdown periods, they might not see anyone outside their apartments for weeks.

The tight restrictions on visitors also meant that health professions students could not visit or interact with older patients the way they usually would as part of their training. That worried VCU students involved with the American Geriatrics Society and drove them to action.

With the help of the group’s faculty liaison, they launched a program that coordinates conversations between students and residents of retirement homes. So far, the all-volunteer operation has connected about three dozen students with residents of Lakewood, a large community of retirees in Henrico County.

The group started by soliciting messages from fellow students that a handful of student volunteers, working in sterile environments, transcribed onto greeting cards. These were sent in bundles to anonymous recipients in nursing homes and assisted-living communities in the Richmond area. The program evolved to provide opportunities for residents and students to connect via phone and Zoom to get to know each other. The result? Friendships that they expect to long outlast the pandemic. 

A pair of volunteers cut cloth from a bolt of fabric lying on a table.
Volunteers cut cloth from a bolt of fabric at the VCU Health Hub at 25th. (Courtesy photo)

Helping the community mask up for safety

Last year the VCU Center for Community Engagement and Impact held three mask-making kit assembly events at the VCU Health Hub at 25th to benefit the community. The last one took place as part of the 9/11 Day of Service. Volunteers included employees and students.

Volunteers used large bolts of fabric and elastic to create kits for the Richmond-area community of people making masks since the start of the pandemic. In order to make it easier for the sewers, volunteers cut the fabric in 8-by-8-inch squares and assembled the kits with all the supplies they would need.

Volunteers prepared enough kits over the three events to make more than 3,500 masks. One of the organizers was professor Patricia Brown in the VCU School of Arts, who coordinated the community sewers and had the masks delivered to art center Studio Two Three, which then distributed them.

V C U's Peppas pep band performing at the Siegel Center.
The Peppas perform for a video to be screened during VCU basketball games. (Photo courtesy of VCU Athletics)

The Peppas continue to bring the fun and the funk

The Peppas band has been spreading joy and revving up the crowd at VCU basketball games for decades and last year even the pandemic couldn’t dampen the band’s spirit and ingenuity. The band tries to do as much as possible throughout the year because its members and director (VCU alum Duane Coston) know what The Peppas mean to VCU and the Richmond community.

Last year instead of physically being perched on a float in the Dominion Energy Christmas Parade, they were part of a virtual event recorded in October that brought lots of smiles and boisterous tunes in December.

The band has even replicated — while wearing masks and maintaining physical distance — the liveliness of a New Orleans street band by strolling along Harrison and Broad streets, playing for all passersby and hoping to bring a little music to their life during stressful times.

The Peppas also recorded virtual content for VCU basketball games as a way to bring their own brand of fun and entertainment to action on the floor. It’s yet another avenue for them to get the fans cheering.

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