Answering the call: Evacuation from China inspires CHS grads to connect students, senior citizens

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Ethan McAndrews experienced the COVID-19 pandemic upending his world twice.

The Indiana University junior was evacuated in late January from studying abroad in China, where the outbreak originated. About six weeks later, the pandemic reached his hometown of Carmel, leading to stay-at-home orders and social distancing mandates.

McAndrews had been preparing to begin an internship in Beijing with the PGA Tour, so when that was canceled, he found himself back at home without classes to take or much to do.

“I felt like I had no sense of purpose,” he said.

But soon, he reconnected with Kayla Nakeeb, a longtime friend and fellow 2017 Carmel High School graduate, who helped him see how he – and others in similar situations – could help meet a need. The two developed Phone-A-Friend, a service that pairs college students with unexpected time on their hands and elderly or immunocompromised individuals who are forced to remain isolated during the pandemic.

McAndrews said he realized the need after struggling through his own feelings of isolation.

“One thing that helped in my journey to re-finding that purpose was having a network of friends and family that I could talk to about how I felt and them checking in to make sure I was doing OK,” McAndrews said. “That helped and made the difference in my transition back from China and the dramatic exit that I had.”

Nakeeb said she experienced similar feelings of isolation after the pandemic closed the Wellesley College campus, where she is an English major. She turned to McAndrews to discuss the sudden upheaval in their lives.

“The sense of normalcy had been yanked out from underneath of us. We both talked about feeling lonely, but we both (live in) houses full of people,” Nakeeb said. “We were thinking about what it must be like for someone who’s home who doesn’t have the same kind of network or access to technology.”

McAndrews and Nakeeb knew that other college students probably felt much like they did, so they brainstormed how they could use their sudden abundance of free time to help during the pandemic. They began recruiting their friends for the program and tried to reach as many senior citizens as they could, too.

Students in the Phone A Friend program are asked to check in on their “buddy” at least twice a week. They receive a list of conversation starters to help build the relationship, something the organizers said could last beyond the pandemic.

“The hope is each student and their senior forms a connection and they’ll want to continue calling and talking to them,” Nakeeb said. “We don’t know how long this is going to last or what the end result will be.”

Phone-A-Friend also has developed a task team of students willing to run errands or pick up groceries or other necessities for those who must remain in their homes.

Nakeeb and McAndrews want to grow the program beyond Carmel. They’ve been in contact with other students to launch the program in Massachusetts and Texas, although they believe it could work anywhere.

Phone-A-Friend’s founders said the response to the program has been good so far, both from students and seniors.

“Hopefully, this (forms) a unique friendship,” Nakeeb said. “The end-all, be-all goal is that you have a connection with somebody that is mutually an act of kindness for both of you.”

Learn more and sign up for the program at phoneafriendindy.com or by calling 541-915-1720

A hasty exit

Ethan McAndrews, an international relations and Mandarin Chinese major at Indiana University, spent eight months in the past four years living and studying in China.

He finished a semester at Nanjing University in early January and was planning a three-week journey throughout China before starting an internship with the PGA Tour in Beijing. One of his planned stops included visiting a friend in Wuhan, the city where COVID-19 is believed to have originated.

McAndrews still planned to travel there after hearing reports in mid-January about an “unknown pneumonia outbreak” in the area. But soon he – and the rest of the world – realized the situation was much worse.

“It was eerie how from early January to mid-January I was taking the trains, and while I was starting my travel we started to see the virus was becoming more serious as our understanding of it evolved,” he said.

McAndrews never made it to Wuhan. By the end of January, it became clear he would be evacuated back home to Carmel. On the day he finally got a flight home, he said he didn’t have time to pack all of his luggage or say goodbyes. He remembers Beijing looked deserted as he made his way to the airport.

Transitioning back to life in the U.S. wasn’t easy, especially as the pandemic made its way here, too. But McAndrews is thankful for his unique perspective on the situation.

“I feel grateful that I had the opportunity to see this pandemic from two different perspectives, having been in China as it was emerging and becoming a serious global threat,” McAndrews said.

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