University of South Florida (USF) Department of Religious Studies Visiting Instructor Garrett Potts, department Chair and Professor Michael DeJonge, and Senior Instructor Tori Lockler, are serving as educators in the “Faith in the Vaccine” program started by Interfaith Youth Core.
As educators Potts, DeJonge, and Lockler, recruited and mentored 19 students through the planning, development, and execution of various projects in the local Tampa Bay area to bring awareness to and increase confidence in the COVID vaccine. Interfaith Youth Core is working with universities across the U.S., recruiting students to plan and implement accessibility and trust-building projects in largely vaccine-hesitant communities: African American, Native American, Latino/a/x, as well as politically and religiously conservative (often evangelical) white communities.
In Spring 2020, Potts, DeJonge, and Lockler applied and were accepted into the Faith in the Vaccine program. After reviewing many applications, 19 qualified and dedicated students were selected to serve as Ambassadors. The role of an Ambassador is to go to local communities and ask to host a program, ranging from social media to in person talks, and provide information about the COVID-19 vaccine.
As the Fall semester moved forward, the students were able to expand their other outreach initiatives. For instance, students reached out to Black churches and on-campus student organizations, working with the local University Area Community Development Corporation (UACDC) to reach the population in the university area just off campus, and began partnering with Tampa Bay Street Medicine (TBSM) in their outreach efforts. After waiting until the organization could allow undergraduates to volunteer safely, students signed up to attend the street runs and mobile clinics – two of the exciting programs run by TBSM – to improve health in vulnerable populations in the local area. The students have created flyers and pamphlets, managed social media accounts, informed individuals and spoken to groups, spoken to local churches, volunteered with organizations such as Tampa Bay Street Medicine and Underground Clinic, and worked with Pasco County Police.
The success stories have been amazing; including a student who was able to have Eduardo Barrichello, son of famed Formula 1 driver in Brazil, Rubinho Barrichello, to post a message on his popular Instagram account showing him getting the vaccine, and encouraging people to contact one of the student ambassadors for more information. Another student had the opportunity to provide vaccines for a number of women rescued from a human trafficking sting operation.
The project will wrap up in December, but one outcome of this project, outside of the amazing work the Ambassadors have done, is their continued dedication to spreading awareness even after the project closes.