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Over the two hours Helen Hennon carefully assembled wellness kits at a table on the floor of Thompson-Boling Arena this past Tuesday afternoon, she thought of her children—a first-year student and junior at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville—and the thousands of others soon joining them on their return back to campus this fall.

“They have their own stories and their own reasons for coming to UT,” said Hennon, a project manager on Facilities Services’ design services team. “In facilities, our mantra is we’re here for our students and to make campus run.”

Many of the more than 200 faculty, staff, and student volunteers who helped assemble 50,000 wellness kits in three days to distribute before the start of the fall semester shared the same motivation: they’re here, even amid the uncertainty brought on by COVID-19, to play their part helping their fellow Volunteers feel safe on campus again.

“No one had to sign up for this—it wasn’t mandatory,” said Sergeant Ashley Stonerock, one of a dozen members of the UT Police Department who assembled wellness kits throughout the week. “I don’t know what this semester will look like, and neither do our students. It’s going to be different. But anything that gives them some peace of mind, we’re here to do.”

UTPD officers prepare wellness kits for people returning to campus inside Thompson-Boling Assembly Center and Arena on July 28, 2020. Photo by Steven Bridges/University of Tennessee

At Thompson-Boling, with masks and rubber gloves on, stuffing clear plastic bags each with a Tennessee mask, checkerboard gaiter, thermometer, and handout containing information about the Volunteer Commitment—a promise to protect one another and prevent the spread of illness—many volunteers from departments and offices across campus spoke in person for the first time since the university transitioned online in March.

They were glad to be back.

“We wanted to give people an opportunity to come, dip their toe in the water, and reunite with people they care about for the greater good of keeping our campus community well,” said Jill Zambito, assistant vice chancellor for student life.

Zambito, who oversees operations in UT’s Emergency Operations Center (EOC), collaborated with Jason Cottrell, assistant director for landscape services and chief of the EOC’s logistics team, and Tyger Glauser Nicholas, UT’s special events manager, to organize the large-scale operation.

It was first publicized to campus on July 9 and slots filled fast.

Heather Hall was among the first to sign up.

“This is the least I can do,” said Hall, a graduate student from Corydon, Indiana, who earned her bachelor’s degree in business management before joining UT’s College Student Personnel program last fall.

Hall grew up traveling to Knoxville to attend Pat Summitt’s basketball camps. Within moments of stepping foot on campus as a high school senior more than five years ago, she knew UT was for her.

In the spring, after classes went online, she’d drive to campus and park outside Brown Hall. With her mask on, she’d walk Johnson-Ward Pedestrian Walkway over to the Alumni Memorial Building past Neyland Stadium, imagining she could hear the sounds of the Pride of the Southland Band playing from inside. Sometimes she paused to watch graduates take their pictures. Other times she’d walk up to Ayres Hall and sit on the lawn before returning to her car—anything to get a taste of campus.

A detail of wellness kits being assembled for people returning to campus inside Thompson-Boling Assembly Center and Arena on July 28, 2020. Photo by Steven Bridges/University of Tennessee

“It was hard leaving in the middle of the spring,” Hall said. “But we’re in unprecedented times. We’re learning to bend and be flexible. Big picture, everyone’s safety is the most important thing.”

For incoming students Maggie Hess and Nolan Keesee, their wellness kit assembly shifts were their first time participating in an event on campus. They were driven by the same spirit that moved Hennon, Stonerock, and Hall to volunteer.

“Being stuck at home meant I spent more time on social media,” said Hess, a first-year master’s student in English from Bedford, Pennsylvania. “It can be a really toxic place. When I realized the effect it was having on me, I decided the best way to combat it was to do good in the real world.”

Hess found out about the service opportunity while searching through the UT calendar on the myUTK app. She moved to Knoxville two months ago from San Antonio, where she was a teacher, on the advice of a student teacher who had attended Hiwassee College and had special memories of the city.

“Now that I’m here, I’m thrilled we’re known as the Volunteers,” said Hess, who has scoured the volunteer page on the City of Knoxville’s website for other opportunities to contribute during her time here.

Keesee, a junior in UT’s Haslam College of Business, transferred this summer from Walters State Community College in Morristown, Tennessee. He volunteered on Wednesday. When he heard there were spots open for Thursday, he asked if he could come back for additional shifts.

“I wanted to quickly get involved,” Keessee said. “What Chancellor Plowman is doing for the campus community means a lot to me.”

Chancellor Donde Plowman prepares wellness kits for people returning to campus inside Thompson-Boling Assembly Center and Arena on July 30, 2020. Photo by Steven Bridges/University of Tennessee

Many of the volunteers joked with colleagues at nearby tables. Some kept count of how many kits they assembled on the way to 50,000. Jay Price, UT’s sustainability manager, assembled 211.

“I’ve missed being here,” said Price. “I’ve been working from home, but I’m going to be on campus more recruiting student workers and training our team.”

Price has a genetic lung disease that places him in a high-risk category for COVID-19. Right now, as with many others on campus, safety is the most important issue for him.

“If we can’t face the big issues at hand, then there’s really no point in talking to people about putting stuff in the right recycling bin,” Price said. “By wearing a mask, you protect yourself a little bit. But more importantly, you protect other people. If everyone does their part, we can stay healthy, move past this, and get back to things we enjoy as a campus and a community.”

Wellness kits will be distributed to faculty and staff through their departments.

Students will receive theirs through University Housing and sororities or fraternities. A staff member is coordinating with property managers for distribution at major off-campus housing complexes.

For any UT faculty, staff member, or student who does not receive a kit through other channels, there will be three days of distribution August 18–20 at four locations on UT’s campus.

A second round of wellness kit assembly is planned for August 25–26. Faculty, staff, and students will receive a second cloth mask and hand sanitizer.

More information about UT’s response to COVID-19 is available at utk.edu/coronavirus.

CONTACT

Brian Canever (865-974-0937, bcanever@utk.edu)