UF medical and PA students volunteer child care and household help for UF Health employees in need

In appreciation for the UF Health staff working tirelessly on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic, UF College of Medicine students are offering their services to help with child care and household chores.

Gator Sitters is a newly created website that pairs hospital staff whose families are in need of child care, pet care and other household duties like meal preparation and grocery shopping with student volunteers who can lend a hand. Third-year UF medical students Emily Edwards and Christine Rodhouse organized the venture and said they have a growing team of UF College of Medicine medical and physician assistant students, as well as students from several UF graduate programs, who are balancing their at-home learning using simulation technology and online lectures with these important volunteer activities.

“We recognize that with schools and day care centers closing, and with the increased workload that this pandemic requires, the health care workers on the front lines are going to need more help, especially with child care,” says Rodhouse. “Currently, we’re sidelined for our own safety and not working in the hospitals, so we thought this was a way to help the cause.”

Since Edwards launched the website on March 25, she and Rodhouse have received requests from five families in need of assistance, and more requests are coming in. UF Health staff make a request for assistance through a Google form on the website, and they are matched with at least one of a team of 15 student volunteers who have availability to help. Students interested in joining the group of volunteers may also sign on by filling out a Google form on the website. All services are free of charge, but families may provide volunteers with tips as a thank you.

Edwards said ensuring the safety of both the families and the student volunteers is of upmost importance, and several measures are in place.

“First, we verify each student and each staff member to ensure they have a UF or UF Health Shands email,” Edwards said. “When volunteers are in the homes of these families, they are vigilant about safety and hygiene by encouraging children to partake in hand-washing. We also encourage the volunteers to clarify with the family what safety precautions they would like the volunteers to follow.”

If the student or someone in the family were to contract COVID-19, all the necessary precautions, notifications and self-quarantine policies would apply, Edwards said.

“As doctors in training, we understand that good hygiene and cleanliness is important in these times because it helps decrease the spread of disease,” she said. “Though the state has issued a stay-at-home law, the work our volunteers are doing is essential because they are providing child care for health care workers on the front line. We need these health care workers to be able to work without having to worry about finding child care. We minimize the number of students working with each family to reduce their risk of exposure.”

Heather Harrell, M.D., associate dean for medical education at the UF College of Medicine, said the measures Edwards and Rodhouse have in place, such as limiting the number of volunteers who work with each family and maintaining a 14-day period before a student volunteers with a new family, minimize contact among volunteers and the families they serve.

“The students are doing everything they can to mitigate risk while providing a very necessary service for those on the front lines of caring for patients,” Harrell said.

Rodhouse provided child care for a family of a UF Health resident and nurse. She said she enjoyed helping the child complete schoolwork, an activity that benefited her own mental health during these trying times.

“It was nice to take a break from all the news and social media that’s hitting you all the time and hang out with a really cool kid,” Rodhouse said.

Edwards said Gator Sitters aims to provide the families of those facing the pandemic head-on with a little respite and the knowledge that they are supported.

“We want to take care of our community,” Edwards said. “It’s giving back a little to the people who have to sacrifice a lot at this time. We want to make sure they know how appreciated they are and for them to have the easiest time as possible, despite all this chaos.”

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