optiMize funds COVID-19 Community Aid Efforts

Michigan News

A student-led incubator at the University of Michigan, optiMize, launched a $25,000 Community Aid Relief Fund recently in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

[left to right, top to bottom]: Stephen Hilton, Lindsay Calka, Jessi Averill, Lucy Miller, Susan Beckett, Glenn Gates, Shoshana Mandel, and  Michael Corrigan meeting via zoom to determine Groundcover news vendor needs for the week (food, bill assistance, unemployment filing, etc) using the optiMize grant to fund this initiative. Photo by: Lindsay Calka

The relief fund aims to provide mutual aid and community-based projects in Washtenaw county who have student leaders. Students at U-M, Eastern Michigan University, or Washtenaw Community College were eligible to apply to up to $5,000 in funding. optiMize received more than 35 applications within two weeks, and 9 were chosen.

The idea for the fund came from when the org leaders realized they could take a part in bringing the community together when all students were sent home, said Megha Kunju, Business sophomore and optiMize marketing lead.

“We just saw so many people doing great work for vulnerable members of the community, even when we couldn’t see each other in person,” Kunju said.

The projects optiMize selected are:

  • Porch Food Pantry, an open-access food pantry that provides non-perishable foods and paper products to vulnerable community members
  • ThirdSpace Hospital Creative Arts Program, a volunteer org that provides art kits for patients in the child/psych unit at the C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital
  • Washtenaw Mask Project, a network of home sewers to make and sell reusable masks and mask-making kits
  • Groundcover Vendors, a fund that supports the health and safety of vendors’ experiencing housing and financial insecurity in light of the newspaper’s indefinite printing suspension by providing monetary coverage of basic needs
  • Washtenaw Interfaith Coalition for Immigrant Rights, a direct fund to support undocumented families who cannot access government aid during the pandemic
  • Huron Valley COVID-19 mutual aid, a group providing care in the form of basic needs and support in the community during the pandemic
  • Family Assessment Clinic Hardship fund: an emergency resource to cover one month of treatment for mental health support and services
  • Mutuality Podcast: a podcast lifting the voices of those doing critical work to support our most vulnerable during the COVID-19 crisis
  • Washtenaw County Neighborhood Podding: a resources for people who wish to connect the members of their neighborhood through building a culture of mutual care

Gabriella Sanford, a master’s student in the School of Social Work and the team representative of the WICIR project, said their group is working to help undocumented families — who are not eligible for the stimulus aid under the CARES act or unemployment — with rent, lights and other necessary bills. 

This mural is at the east outer wall of Dos Hermanos Market in Ypsilanti, Michigan designed and painted by a WICIR activist Alejandro Chinchilla and a group of teen volunteers, photo by: Gabriella Sanford

“We have helped more than 70 families in the Washtenaw area, and hope to help many more,” Sanford said. “We also help undocumented families connect with other services, like if they need to go to the emergency room and need a translator or transportation. We have been pretty busy during the pandemic and hopefully can help many people in our community.”

Jeff Sorensen, co-founder of optiMize and director for social innovation for the College of LSA, said that optimize wanted to do its part to support not only the Washtenaw community but also the Ann Arbor and U-M community — and believes that people have their own best solutions to issues in our community.

“Moving forward, we know the world is not going to go back to how it was before COVID,” Sorensen said. “For optiMize specifically, we’re anticipating that we might see thousands of students in the coming years who are moved to take social action specifically because of this crisis. We are going to be here to help them create great projects, and the people we’re working with on these COVID-19 efforts could provide a glimpse of what the future of optiMize might look like.”

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