The Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center’s annual Summer Youth Program kicked-off with one big change: this year’s program is virtual. While the young students won’t be floating through the halls of the hospital, their work will still have an impact on Veterans.

This year’s program is dubbed “Bridging the Digital Divide.” It focuses on gaps in knowledge related to Veterans and staff accessing virtual care. With COVID-19, much of the non-urgent care for Veterans at Charleston VAMC has shifted to virtual appointments. Doing so uses technology platforms that not all Veterans are familiar with.

Youth volunteers help Veterans with virtual appointments and other technology that not all Veterans are familiar with.

“I see this going nowhere but up,” said Amanda Mercer, Charleston VAMC Voluntary Service Specialist. “There will be great products created for everyone. This is a huge benefit for Veterans and caregivers, as well as providers at our VA.”

Rigorous selection process

Mercer developed the virtual Summer Youth Program. She has big plans for the 10 students who were selected through a rigorous selection process. Those plans include focusing on their ability to use technology. Selecting officials also assessed the volunteers on their willingness to learn new things, collaborate well with adults and work well within their peer group.

“Setting up this program took some thinking outside of the box,” said Mercer.

While some summer volunteer programs were canceled due to COVID-19, Charleston VAMC got creative and gave their program a more focused approach to directly impact challenges the hospital is facing during the pandemic.

Students must log at least 50 hours at the end of their six-week commitment.

Proposed projects

Proposed projects for the students include:

  • Helping consolidate VA Video Connect (VVC) resources on SharePoint for a “one-stop-shop” for provider information.
  • Creating an information sheet to distribute to Veterans to help them use and access VVC for Primary Care appointments.
  • Working with the Caregiver Support Team to create a virtual Caregiver Support Summit.
  • Helping the Lowcountry Veterans Engagement Team with the technology needed to support this year’s TedTalks virtually.
  • Equipping volunteers with virtual tools by creating and offering training in a variety of online platforms, including WebEx.

Owen Robert is a 17-year-old rising senior at Porter-Gaud School in Charleston, South Carolina, who was looking for a digital opportunity to stay involved in the community this summer while also adhering to the COVID-19 recommendations.

Robert noted that service is a big part of his school’s culture. “My generation grew up with technology and I thought I would be a big help at VA. I’m excited to make a positive impact on those who have given so much, our Veterans.”

Robert says he has developed skills in school that have given him the tools he needs, like video-editing, to create content that will be helpful for Veterans. He’s looking forward to how this program might shape his interest in a possible future career in health care.

Help my grandfather with technology

Sophia Leclerc will be a sophomore at North Charleston’s Academic Magnet School. She feels a personal connection by volunteering at VA. “My grandfather was a Veteran. This is a good opportunity to volunteer and help Veterans like my grandfather with technology.

“This is also a good chance to understand Veterans’ needs,” she said.

All 10 youth volunteers not only have the skillsets needed to educate Veterans and staff on areas to implement technology solutions, but also have the passion to serve Veterans and their community.

“While this is a change from our regular Summer Youth Program, I have no doubt that these students have the motivation to complete their projects,” said Mercer. “These kids are all very hungry to help.”

Charleston VAMC can’t wait to see what these students come up with!

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Published on Aug. 7, 2020

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