They are community organizers, custodial managers, emergency planners, communicators and counselors. They are also students in UVM’s Public Administration master’s degree program, which prepares graduates for careers in public service. 

For most MPA students, the majority of their academic coursework gets done in the evenings and on weekends, after they’ve put in a day’s or week’s worth of work at their internships or full-time jobs. Since the coronavirus outbreak began, they’ve been embedded in their communities and organizations working on the front lines of the response. 

Advocating for Workers

As a customer service representative for Hunger Mountain Co-op, a natural food cooperative and grocery store in Montpelier, Emma Paradis is focused on the health and safety of the store’s customers and staff. As the vice president of her local union, UE Local 255, she’s been navigating unemployment issues and leading negotiations to provide supplemental pay and benefits for more than 100 employees who are risking their own health to feed the community.

“It’s definitely a whole new world, especially as new regulations are coming out almost every day,” says Paradis. “It’s been a learning experience, but I’d say the greatest challenge has been having to make decisions that weigh on so many different people and ensuring our union members are getting the support they need.” 

Providing Emotional Support

Balancing a job, internship and her MPA capstone course in the midst of COVID-19 has been a juggling act, says Caroline Rubin. Lately, she’s been working 12-hour shifts as a residential counselor for the Howard Center in a home for adults with schizophrenia and other mental health disorders. Her usual activities like administering medications, general housekeeping and providing emotional support have become much more complicated since the outbreak began. The staff have been doing their best to quarantine residents, while also limiting the number of individual staff members coming in and out of the home.

“I’m taking on more hours because I have coworkers who can’t right now,” says Rubin. “Even though school is my priority, the health and safety of the residents come first right now.” 

Rubin is also completing an internship with the Vermont Housing Finance Agency, where she’s supporting research on emerging housing needs in the state, such as evaluating potential community-level indicators for COVID-19 risk.

Keeping Vermonters Fed

“I’m in full Hunger Council world right now,” says Hannah Carpino, who works as a community engagement coordinator for Hunger Free Vermont through the AmeriCorps Vista program. As part of her role, Carpino manages the organization’s ten Hunger Councils based throughout the state. Each council is comprised of individuals from local nonprofits, governments, food shelves and other community organizations who come together to address food insecurity within their region. 

Carpino coordinates the council meetings, which have ramped up from quarterly to weekly occurrences since the start of COVID-19 and provide a command center for organizations to share information and strategize. Many councils have reported a significant increase in people applying for 3 Squares Vermont, the state’s federal Supplemental Nutrition Program, and accessing food shelves. 

“We have not seen this kind of pressure on our charitable food system in a long, long time,” says Carpino. “Most food shelves have been able to respond to the need so far, but the system was not designed to deal with something of this magnitude.”