GAMBIER — Many college students take for granted the people and businesses that provide for day-to-day necessities or make college life enjoyable. While they might remember their favorite pizza parlor, it's easy to forget the automotive shop, hair salon, or local grocery.
With Knox County reeling from Gov. Mike DeWine's shutdown of nonessential businesses, Kenyon College students didn't forget. They did just the opposite.
Led by junior Sigal Felber, students pitched in financially to help local workers facing hardship due to COVID-19.
Through her previous work with nonprofits and labor unions, Felber saw how many ways people can contribute to their favorite restaurant or work groups that are suppressed and need help.
“I definitely have been involved in community engagement during my time at Kenyon, so thinking about how I could continue that work was definitely on my radar when the coronavirus started,” she said. “I spend most of my time at Kenyon, and I wanted to find a way to give back to workers in Knox County and those people who support Kenyon students and make it possible for us to go out and get food when we don't want to eat in the dining hall, or when we need to get our car fixed.”
As co-chair of the Kenyon Young Democratic Socialists, Felber enlisted the group's help.
“They're a committed group of students who want to get involved and show how much we appreciate Knox County even though we're only here for four years,” she said. “I pitched doing a fundraiser to them for people who are out of work, trying to just mobilize the Kenyon student body. We were looking for an organization that we could partner with to see who was already doing that work.”
Felber said that one thing she's learned during her time at Kenyon is how many different social service functions, community service, and activist groups are already in place in Knox County.
“I think it's really important to work with them rather than assume that they aren't there,” she said.
Reading about the United Way's COVID relief fund on Knox Pages, she reached out to Kelly Brenneman, executive director of United Way of Knox County.
“Something we were really concerned about was making sure that the relief was going to individuals in need, people who were out of work, rather than going to like, say, corporations,” said Felber.
After learning from Brenneman how the fund would work, what rent costs are in Knox County, and how United Way will distribute the money, Felber said the partnership “seemed like a perfect fit.”
Students were on spring break when the coronavirus crisis hit in March. With DeWine's stay-at-home orders, the students who stayed on campus during break went home, and the other students never returned.
Felber, who lives in Wisconsin, and the KYDS turned to social media and email to rally the student body.
“We decided to do it as a contest between different student organizations to see who could raise the most money,” she said. “We had some money left over in our [KYDS] budget, so we were going to reward the one who raised the most with a credit to a local restaurant because we thought we could also support Mount Vernon that way.
“It ended up being much more successful than we thought,” she said of the contributions.
Two clubs donated the rest of their budget, $800 for one and $500 for the other, but it didn't stop there.
As with most successful efforts, timing is everything.
Jan Thomas, director of Kenyon's Office for Community Partnerships, also saw the United Way release and sent an email to Kenyon faculty in case they were interested in donating. A day or two later, Brenneman contacted Thomas about Felber's interest in recruiting students to contribute.
At the same time, Stephen Van Holde, political science professor at Kenyon, saw a student interview about the students' campaign. Connecting it with Thomas' email, he suggested a friendly competition between students and faculty.
“The students have been just fantastic,” said Thomas. “We've had a good response from students and faculty, many who have already given to the United Way campaign, who are really stepping up to help the COVID fund.”
Thomas said it made sense for the students and faculty to move in one direction and donate to United Way's fund.
“The distribution system is there, and the people who need it in Knox County will get it,” she said. “It's really great to be able to partner with United Way and funnel it through United Way.
“It's been really great to see how much the students care about Gambier and Knox County, even when they are not here,” she added.
The competition, which officially ended May 4, drew in $19,183.45, with students collecting $4,196.93. Faculty members contributed $14,786.52 and alumni added another $200.
Brenneman, United Way's director, was overwhelmed.
“I am very touched that the Kenyon community was so responsive and caring,” she said. “These kids, they come here and spend nine months here. They really did show how much they care about the people in the coffee shops and the restaurants and all of the people who make their nine months here very comfortable and a wonderful experience.”
Brenneman said that the fund is a response and recovery fund, but it will primarily be used for recovery.
“We plan on opening up applications that nonprofits can apply for. We really want this money to go to people who never needed services before, who never went to the food banks,” she explained. “We want to help people who were set back by COVID-19: help them catch up on their rent, and their utility bills, and possibly medical conditions and things of that nature.”
Brenneman said funding will go to vetted agencies that have a system in place to distribute the money. The money will not go to the family; rather, the agencies will pay the electric company, for example, directly. United Way will have the online application available later this month.
“What we really like about this project is that we're going to be able to track and give a report back to the community on how many people we served, who we served, how many utility bills we paid, how many medications we purchased and how many phone bills we paid, so people can really see and understand exactly what it means to give to a fund,” she said.
“So many times you don't really know where the money goes. We want to make sure that the people who donate to our COVID-19 fund will see how we are using that money, and we'll tell them exactly how it was used.”
The Kenyon community's donations bring the fund total to a little over $45,000.
“It's very heart-warming,” said Brenneman. “I don't like to fundraise during a crisis situation, and this is a very big crisis situation, but there were so many wonderful people, Kenyon being one of them and a lot of individuals here in town, who wanted to donate something. After talking with the Knox County Foundation and my board, we decided to set up a COVID-19 fund and use the money for response and recovery.
“It is kind of unexpected, but I'm not surprised,” she added of the response. “I knew that if we did set up a fund it would probably be well received because this is Knox County. But I also think that people trust United Way and they trust us to spend the money the way we say we will.”
Of the partnership with Thomas and her office, Brenneman said “that's exactly what that office was designed for, connecting the hill to Knox County.”
“I think it turned out beautifully,” she said. “I think that this office has really shined with this response.”
“We always love to see students reaching out to the community and making relationships,” said Stacy Haught, assistant director and coordinator for volunteer activities for the Office of Community Partnerships. “I think that is one of the most impactable ways we can help.
“It's definitely part of community engagement,” she added. “When we're able to come back together next year, we hope it inspires even more students to volunteer.”
In addition to contributing to the COVID-19 relief fund, Kenyon's science and art departments donated three carloads of PPE (personal protective equipment) to Knox Community Hospital. The Student Affairs Office collected nonperishable food items left behind when the students did not return from spring break and donated them to local food pantries. The Events Office will hold a blood drive on May 28 and July 23.
For her part, Felber, an American studies major minoring in religious studies, is ready to begin her senior year at Kenyon in the fall.
“All of us students are really looking forward to getting back,” she said.
The link to donate to the United Way Response and Recovery Fund is still open. Individuals and organizations interested in contributing but who cannot do so electronically can mail contributions to the United Way office at 305 E. High St., Mount Vernon, or contact Brenneman at Kelly@uwayknox.org.