How We Did It: Volunteers key to URI community testing program

KINGSTON, R.I. – February 3, 2021 — Wendy Bucci ‘87 is the chief operating officer for the URI Foundation & Alumni Engagement, which usually has little to do with the operational aspects of the University.

But in March 2020, Bucci didn’t flinch when she was asked to turn the Foundation building’s fundraising call center into a COVID-19 hotline as the University began announcing major decisions, including ending in-person classes after Spring Break. She became the site logistics coordinator, scheduling University staff from all over campus to take hundreds of calls and provide answers to worried parents and students.

It was during those first hectic months of the pandemic when the seeds of a movement began taking shape at URI. Hundreds of University employees from every administrative division not only continued to put in long, hard hours to do their own jobs, but volunteered for other jobs, such as working at University testing sites and the contact tracing center to ensure the University continued to thrive and serve its students.

Ashley Philibert hands a vial containing the swab for a COVID-19 test to senior public relations senior Kevin Chenard
Ashley Philibert hands a vial containing the swab for a COVID-19 test to senior public relations senior Kevin Chenard. URI photo by Dave Lavallee

Since that time, many continue to volunteer and their efforts were critical to resuming in-person classes and activities in the fall. They will be central to a successful spring semester.

Health Services needed to expand its contact tracing team and location when the decision was made to do mass testing for 100% of the student population in late September.  The University moved its contact tracing center on Sept. 25 to the Alumni Room at the Ryan Center and started mandatory testing for all students Oct. 5.

“We got the call Sept. 22 asking us if we could have the contact tracing center up by Sept. 25,” Bucci said.

She and Cassie Whitworth, campus preparedness planner in Emergency Management, loaded 16 computers from the Foundation into a truck and drove them to the Ryan Center.

“The Ryan Center and University Information Technology Services teams were great, helping us place tables at safe distances,” Bucci said. “We also provided masks and sanitizing materials. We were ready to go Sept. 25.”

When the call went out campus-wide for volunteers to help with mandatory and surveillance testing, more than 150 people signed up.

Working closely with Jennifer Hodshon, associate director of Health Services and operations section chief for COVID-19 testing at the University, Bucci connected with Dan Moos, assistant to Abigail Rider, vice president for Administration and Finance, to help with the testing centers. Bucci coordinated the volunteers and Moos served as one of the testing centers’ site managers.

“It really takes a village to pull something of this magnitude off and that’s exactly what happened,” Hodshon said. “We all came together for a common cause and we did it. I am proud to be part of such a dedicated and talented team, and I know that we will continue working together to keep our community members safe and healthy during the spring semester.”

On any given day, University community members going for self-administered, asymptomatic tests at the Memorial Union could be greeted by the smiling, but masked, faces of Joanne Esposito and Paula Santos, ‘74, M.P.A. ‘80, specialists in the Office of University Events; Ashley Frezza, ‘16, event assistant; Jodi Hawkins, director of Campus Recreation; Maureen McCarthy, associate athletic director and member of the Ryan Center team in charge of ticketing; Dean Libutti, ‘95 M.B.A., vice provost for enrollment management; Laura Kenerson, ‘73, M.P.A. ‘79, director of personnel services; Christine Boettger, ‘95, M.O.A. ‘17, business analyst in the Facilities Group, Lara Fayanjuola, executive assistant to the dean of students; Jennifer Whitworth, coordinator, medical billing and Insurance; Jennifer Strollo, coordinator, nursing services, Jackie Nowell, and dozens more.

They sit behind protective plastic shields explaining how to administer the test, how to sanitize correctly before and after the test. “It has become a fine-tuned machine, and now we have the mechanics in place to continue our robust testing program and launch a vaccination program,” Bucci said.

“I had wonderful help from Maureen McCarthy from the Ryan Center and Cassie Whitworth in Emergency Management,” Moos said.  “Between 50 and 100 people have been volunteering regularly. We have been able to do upwards of 1,500 tests a day, and we have done it primarily with volunteers,” Moos said.

In addition, Moos continues to oversee nursing students completing clinical rotations at the testing sites.

“A big part of the job at the testing centers is how you greet people, how you make them feel comfortable,” Moos said. “I always get concerned when I see a line of people at the door, but I am then quite happy when a student or staff member tells me she has waited only 5 minutes. At least once a day, people find me to thank me and tell me this was really great.”