As Mohammad Khan sat at his computer this summer, he worked on a white paper for the Boston-based urban planning group The Collaborative. Khan was an O’Neill Policy Studies major at the time, interning for the group and tasked with examining alternate care facilities that could be set up within 48 hours of an outbreak.
“The team wanted to know how and where they could quickly create makeshift hospitals,” he says. “We looked at what could be viable options—including schools, convention centers, hotels, even dorm rooms. Most city and state officials will have questions, so we will have answers to guide them.”
Khan’s research found that a centralized, well-connected location near public transportation was ideal in most large cities—a city within a city, he explained.
“For Indianapolis, the Convention Center is the best option,” he suggests. “It’s a large facility connected to a few hotels that could house patients and medical staff to help reduce cross-contamination with people outside.”
But for smaller communities, Khan said schools would be the optimal solution. They could house large numbers of patients if hospitals couldn’t accommodate them all.
“Usually the government would take charge through an Incident Command System,” Khan says. “During this pandemic however, the federal government has created lots of leeway for the public to get involved.”
Khan was a unique fit for this type of project. He was coming off another internship with the Indiana Department of Homeland Security just as COVID hit. In the weeks prior, he had been updating IDHS’ plans on logistics staging areas and points of distribution.
Those same plans would allow Aaron Farrer to execute his mission with the Indiana National Guard.
Farrer, an O’Neill Public Safety major is in his seventh year with the National Guard, hadn’t served on a mission yet. Then an email hit his inbox about a COVID-19 response mission, beginning in April—a mission that could also serve as an internship. The conditions were unknown and there was no end date. All Farrer was told was to bring his hazmat gear and prepare for an indefinite deployment.
He was later assigned to help with food bank distribution at Hoosier Hills Food Bank in Bloomington, Indiana. Due to fears of COVID-19 and the chaos of quarantine, volunteer rates were down and the need for help was up. That’s where the National Guard stepped in.
“Being in the military, we’ve already made the decision that when no one else wants to do something, we’ll be there to do it,” Farrer says. “We were just helping the food bank accomplish its mission.”
His team’s mission was to do what they do best: follow orders. The soldiers worked with volunteers and employees to assemble boxes of food for those in need and for nearby food banks.
They then helped load those boxes into cars as people drove through the line at food distributions. The event that was supposed to end their mission in June drew about 400 people in six hours—fewer than anticipated. But word soon got around and the National Guard extended the team’s mission. By the middle of August, one of their drive-thru events served 1,000 families in just five hours.
Farrer says the people he met in those lines were grateful and humble. Many said it was their first time using a food bank and they didn’t know what to do.
“We would help them understand what was going on and how to do it,” Farrer recalls. “There’s absolutely no shame involved in anyone using a food bank.”
Farrer says those people and the ones dedicated to serving them left an impression that will last beyond his deployment.
“This was my first opportunity to work with volunteers and I spent a lot of time trying to figure out what they got out of volunteering,” he says. “I learned it’s their passion project. They absolutely have a sense of service in the same way anyone who joins the military does. They feel a duty to serve the people in their community—no matter the circumstances.”
Both Farrer and Khan are taking O’Neill’s commitment to making a difference out of the classroom and into the community. Their work has helped others not only address current issues caused by COVID-19 but will also allow leaders to plan for the next crisis so they can be prepared to better serve our cities, our neighbors, and the world.