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Together, apart: how TeamBlue volunteers helped their neighbors virtually in 2020

Each year, our TeamBlue volunteers give thousands of hours to causes and organizations that matter to them. They’ve supported a variety of organizations, including local hospitals, Ronald McDonald Houses, the Tennessee Senior Olympics, local food banks and thrift stores, to name a few.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, 96% of BlueCross employees are working from home, and we suspended in-person volunteer activities temporarily to help keep them safe. Despite these challenges, our TeamBlue employee volunteers still found ways to help their neighbors.

“Our employees continuously show how they make our company great by giving back to the communities they live and work in,” says Carmen Davis, a program management coordinator on the BlueCross community relations team.

Her counterpart in Memphis, Claire Brulatour, echoes those sentiments. “We’ve always known that BlueCross employees are some of the most dedicated and enthusiastic volunteers around, and it was inspiring to see how willing they were to pivot to virtual opportunities and continue serving our communities,” she says.

TeamBlue volunteers have donated 3,000 hours of their time in 2020 through virtual opportunities. 

We spoke to some of our employees and community partners about the way TeamBlue volunteers have given back this year – right from their own homes.

Well wishes for Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital

TeamBlue volunteers have been long-time supporters of Memphis-based Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital. They’ve served coffee and meals to patients, their families and staff members — they’ve even helped deliver holiday treats. And their support of the hospital didn’t stop when COVID-19 arrived in Tennessee.

To let the patients and staff members at Le Bonheur know they’re cared for and appreciated, our volunteers filmed encouraging videos to send well wishes to everyone at the hospital during this challenging year.

“When Le Bonheur temporarily closed its doors to essential volunteers this spring, TeamBlue redoubled its efforts to make sure the patients were still able to see warm, smiling faces by submitting uplifting videos to broadcast on our TV station in patient rooms,” says Allison Smith with the volunteer and family support staff at Le Bonheur.

TeamBlue volunteer Michele Myers understands the importance of Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital firsthand, and she was happy to give back.

“We visited Le Bonheur about seven years ago when my daughter had an accident,” she says. “I’ll always remember the smiles the volunteers, nurses and doctors brought to our faces when we were there. I participated in this virtual opportunity because I couldn’t turn down the chance to put a smile on a child’s face – even for a moment. We couldn’t be there in person this year, but letting a child and their family know someone is thinking of them was more important than ever.”

MIphone buddies

TeamBlue volunteer Lynn Jones serving with the MIphone Buddy program

Memphis-based Metropolitan Inter-Faith Association (MIFA) was established in 1968 and has long supported the city with a variety of community outreach programs, including Meals on Wheels deliveries. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the organization had to restructure many of its existing programs to ensure the safety of both volunteers and community members. MIFA asked volunteers to participate in its MIphone Buddy program, calling Meals on Wheels clients, many of whom were likely struggling with isolation and loneliness, to check in.

“When the pandemic forced us to reduce in-person interactions with our senior clients, the MIphone Buddy program helped fill the gap,” says Kristi Estes, a volunteer specialist at MIFA. “We are grateful to all our volunteers, and especially to the 31 members of TeamBlue who make meaningful connections with our clients each week.”

Lynn Jones, a program management specialist at BlueCross, is one of those volunteers. “When I signed up for the MIphone Buddy program, I thought it was a great opportunity to reach out to those who are shut-in and may not have a lot of interaction with other people, especially during the pandemic,” she says. “Each week, I look forward to calling the people on my list, and I have benefitted from this opportunity as much as they have.”

Virtual story time

Early in the year, schools across the state transitioned to virtual learning, allowing their students to continue their studies while practicing social distancing. While this helped keep everyone safe, it made the year challenging for students, their parents and their teachers. To help keep kids motivated and encourage their love of reading, our TeamBlue volunteers recorded themselves sharing their favorite children’s books. We partnered with Shelby County Schools and Chattanooga-based Read 20 to distribute the videos to students in the Memphis area and across Hamilton County.

BlueCross Chief Government Relations Officer Dakasha Winton even kicked off the opportunity with a video of her own. 

“TeamBlue volunteers have long helped Read 20 reach families and delight children with books,” says Shawn Kurrelmeier-Lee, chief reading officer at Read 20. “This virtual story time opportunity allowed us to continue fostering a love of reading throughout the pandemic and to reach some children we would not normally be able to engage with.”

For Susan Mullins, a project manager at BlueCross, this opportunity had personal significance. “My oldest son, Russ, passed away nine years ago, and I always look for ways to volunteer in memory of him,” she says. “From the time he learned to read until he passed away, he always had a book by his side. When I found out about the virtual story time opportunity with TeamBlue, I knew I wanted to read Russ’s favorite book, Never Talk to Strangers by Irma Joyce.”

United Way Day of Caring with Northside Neighborhood House

Like their students, teachers are feeling the stress of the pandemic. This year, our volunteers teamed up with Northside Neighborhood House (NNH) for the United Way of Greater Chattanooga’s annual Day of Caring event. Volunteers wrote letters of encouragement to teachers at two of NNH’s partner schools, Red Bank Elementary and Red Bank Middle School, to help them stay motivated as they navigate the stressors of the pandemic.

“TeamBlue volunteers helped us immensely this year by supporting local educators,” says Dakota Gouger, relationship manager at Northside Neighborhood House. “These letters provided moral support, as well as affirmations of the amazing pivots and adaptations our educators have made during this unprecedented year. With the number of teachers in these schools, we knew we needed a larger partner to reach them all, and we were so fortunate that BlueCross was able to step in and help us.”

Bobby Cook, a BlueCross customer service representative, was glad to lend some encouragement. “I know teachers are facing stressors and challenges during this time. I was excited to send some encouragement and let them know others are thinking of them,” he says.

Senior citizen phone bank and senior pen pals

Senior citizens are at greater risk of serious complications from COVID-19, so it was important that Tennesseans in this age group have access to up-to-date information about the virus, as well as health and safety tips. TeamBlue partnered with the City of Chattanooga for a senior citizen phone bank to help spread this critical information. Each week, volunteers called local senior citizens to check in, provide them with helpful information and even connect them with important services.

“The phone bank would not have been a success without the participation of BlueCross employees, who continuously made calls for weeks,” says Brooke Satterfield, coordinator of special projects for Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke. “Because of the incredible service TeamBlue volunteers provided, our senior citizens received accurate information about COVID-19; they were connected to resources to assist with filling medications, grocery shopping and bill payments; and at-risk residents were proactively identified and put in touch with various agencies and taken care of. On behalf of the City of Chattanooga and our older adult population, a huge ‘thank you’ to your TeamBlue volunteers.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has been difficult for everyone, but particularly senior citizens living in assisted care facilities. Many of these facilities are operating under modified procedures, so residents may not get to see friends and family members like they normally do. To help keep spirits high, TeamBlue partnered with Brookdale Senior Living for a senior pen pal program. Volunteers wrote letters of encouragement and provided companionship from afar for residents at several assisted care facilities. Some even bought them small gifts.

Belinda Nicely, a Medical Home Partnership care coordinator at BlueCross, previously worked in long-term care and understands the loneliness residents often feel, especially during the pandemic. “My goal in volunteering was to put a smile on a face, even though I knew I might never get a response to my letters,” she says. “I sent my pen pal two boxes of cookies with my first letter. The coordinator let me know how excited and special she felt. And I received such a blessing knowing I put a little joy in someone’s life.”

Virtual Volunteer Day with Volunteer Odyssey

TeamBlue volunteer Katie Banks made cards for Volunteer Odyssey’s virtual volunteer day

In June, TeamBlue joined Memphis-based Volunteer Odyssey for its Virtual Volunteer Day. Volunteers participated in a variety of activities in partnership with several Memphis-area organizations, including:

  • Creating handmade cards for children affected by childhood illness or with special needs
  • Making birthday cards for senior citizens
  • Adopting and cleaning storm drains
  • Making flags for child abuse prevention

“TeamBlue was instrumental in the success of Volunteer Odyssey’s Virtual Volunteer Day,” says Dr. Sarah Petschonek, founder and CEO of Volunteer Odyssey. “Throughout this pandemic, nonprofits have needed additional support for virtual and remote projects. TeamBlue answered this call, mobilizing volunteers from across the state to help Volunteer Odyssey meet community needs.”

Looking ahead

While the future is still uncertain, the BlueCross community relations team is already hard at work finding ways for TeamBlue volunteers to remain engaged in 2021.

No matter what the coming months bring, one thing remains true – whether in person or virtually, TeamBlue will continue serving our neighbors as enthusiastically as ever.

About Amanda Haskew, Communications Specialist

A photo of the authorAmanda joined the BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee corporate communications team in 2017. Born and raised in Chattanooga, she has a decade of experience in writing for print and the web, as well as digital marketing.

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