Students, employees benefit from university’s crisis response fund

When the COVID-19 crisis hit, Danny Lawrence, a University College student at Washington University in St. Louis, immediately lost his part-time job. Soon Lawrence, who is 50 and blind, had a mortgage and other bills he couldn’t pay.

“I was in a bind, bind, bind,” he said. University College sent out an email informing students that aid was available through the newly created WashU Crisis Response Fund. Lawrence applied and soon had enough assistance to pay his bills.

“In my time of need, Washington University and UCollege did not let me slip through the cracks,” he said.

In March, the university created the crisis response fund to help both students and employees get through the economic hardship caused by the pandemic. The university distributed support, made up of donations from alumni, employees, parents and other friends of the university, to students in two waves between mid-March and early May.

Across the two waves of funding, the university received applications from 1,058 students and funded 737 people, which is about 70% of applications.

While not everyone was funded, students received support in other ways as well. The university reimbursed students for parking costs, health fees and meal plans. Students whose university housing fees were covered by financial aid still received a refund, independent of the crisis fund, in order to secure new accommodations. Offices across the university, including the Office for Student Success and Student Financial Services, also provided support to students outside of the student crisis fund.

“One of our institutional goals since before the COVID-19 pandemic has been to provide ongoing support for students with significant financial need,” said Chancellor Andrew D. Martin. “This is reflected in our financial aid packages as well as emergency funds that are available through the Office for Student Success. Our commitment has been reaffirmed during the past three months as many of our students and families have experienced even greater challenges.”

In total, the university allocated $502,000 in crisis support through the crisis response fund. The student crisis fund raised more than $135,701 from 513 donors over 650 gifts (some donors gave twice). The rest of the funding was provided by groups such as Student Union and the Brown School, as well as the university.

Lawrence found the support from the university community especially meaningful.

“This is a fund that was from alumni donating money,” he said. “That’s such a beautiful thing that you can belong to a fraternity where someone is doing good, and they want to make sure that the people after them do as good or even better.”

But the alumni and employee donors were only one part of the effort. Software company WizeHive provided its technology platform Zengine to the university as an in-kind donation, and, with help from the Skandalaris Center, built the application platform in a single weekend. The software sped up allocating funds by providing an easy-to-use application-management system. More than 150 volunteers from the university community evaluated the applications and provided the money to students.

“This reaffirmed that it is part of who we are as an institution and as a community to come together and support our most vulnerable,” Martin said.

Employees benefit, too

The crisis fund also supported employees, which includes all faculty, staff and basic-service contractors. In total, the fund received 75 applications, of which 43 were from university employees.

The fund raised $77,545 and allocated more than $50,000 to 36 employees and 28 basic-service contractors. The top priorities for meeting needs were housing and food insecurity as well as urgent medical expenses. The remaining funds will be used to address other employee-related needs.

Like with the student fund, employees from across campus volunteered to evaluate applications, and money was included in biweekly payroll checks as soon as a week after the application period closed.

“We have never been more grateful for the generosity of our alumni, friends and volunteers who are stepping forward to help as we navigate these difficult times,” said Pamella A. Henson, executive vice chancellor for University Advancement.

Lawrence said the generosity proves something about the university’s values.

“Chancellor Martin, when he gave his speech about diversity, I was wondering what that would look like. Did it include someone with a disability? This situation became my answer,” he said. “There are people at Washington University and University College that understand a student might be struggling. They want to make sure that they’re looking out for us because we’re part of the fraternity. And that’s a beautiful thing.”

The crisis response fund is still accepting donations.

To learn more about the ways Washington University students, faculty, staff and alumni are caring for one another and our communities, visit #WashUtogether.

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