From Coffee Chats to Community Connections

I was introduced to the idea of a “coffee chat” when I became a college student, and these quickly became one of my favorite things to do. I was amazed by how easy it is to get a stranger to agree to meet with you, and how surprisingly pleasant and helpful coffee chats tend to be. When I learned that a friend of a friend was spending the summer in my hometown, I decided to arrange for us to have a coffee chat, unknowing of what I was about to get myself into. Little did I know, this friend of a friend, Hannah Chiu, was a cofounder of CovidSMS, and she asked me to join the team. I learned that CovidSMS was a text messaging platform that aimed to provide low income individuals with Covid-19 related information via text, since statistics have shown that low-income Americans often lack access to the internet despite owning a phone with texting capabilities. As a student passionate about public health, this seemed like a great opportunity for me to make a positive impact during this public health crisis.


Given my outgoing nature and love for coffee chats, the Community Outreach team naturally seemed like the best fit for me. Our team cold calls nonprofits to learn about their current communication methods, how that has been disrupted during this unique time where physical contact can be dangerous, and if CovidSMS can help them at all. We specifically target nonprofits that assist low-income individuals with food, housing, and other basic needs. I have spent time on the CovidSMS team as both a community outreach coordinator who makes cold calls, and as the community outreach lead who oversees all outreach efforts of our team. Despite having coordinators located in over ten locations across the United States, responses from nonprofit leaders have been consistently positive, with the message that the customizable mass SMS system we provide is needed, especially in a time where in person communication has to be limited.


Different aspects of our customizable SMS platform are attractive to different partners. Bethlehem Haven, a small women’s shelter in Pittsburgh, uses our service to inform its guests about testing sites, local ordinances, and nearby assistance and resource centers. The Wellness Center, an organization that aims to improve the health of low income residents in Los Angeles, plans to use our service to send demographic-specific announcements to their clients. Visalia Family Crisis Center has emphasized that our service can help lessen the administrative burden they face, as oftentimes, many calls they receive inquire about basic information that can be disseminated via an automated text system instead. San Jose Virtual Local Assistance Center has expressed that our service is definitely needed in a geographic location of such diverse socio-economic status such as San Jose, where some individuals are very well off, but many others are low-income and lack access to the internet. Many organizations have expressed that they are operating under tight budgets, and our ability to provide our service at little to no cost has helped them tremendously. The needs of nonprofits and the communities they serve vary significantly, so it is extremely important that when working with low-income communities, we work with nonprofit organizations who know these communities best and can speak on behalf of the community’s needs.


CovidSMS is able to fill different needs of different organizations we partner with due to the flexibility we can have as a student-run organization. Community outreach members form meaningful relationships with their contacts at various nonprofits, and through those connections, our team is able to adapt to the unique needs of each organization. CovidSMS aims to make an impact during this tragedy of Covid-19, and the impact we make can only happen through meaningful connections. By creating strong bonds with partners and a cultivating sense of community within our team, I have learned that strong interpersonal relationships are the key to success for any organization. The impact one can have on people all begins with the relationships one forms, and for me, it all started with a coffee chat.