The Maryville College campus has been closed since March 19 and final exams ended Wednesday, May 6, but a few dozen students have remained on-site.

While others moved out of the residence halls in March, the college granted permission to a small group to remain, including about a dozen international students and others with special circumstances, such as living in communities hard hit by COVID-19 or needing to complete graduation or service requirements locally, according to Kirsten Sheppard, director of international education.

Those students still had access to food service on campus until the end of the semester but face other difficulties, from lost jobs to lack of transportation, as well as not having their usual support system of friends and family because of the pandemic.

“Our students very much feel like a part of the Maryville community,” Sheppard said. “That’s an experience they’re missing.”

A Facebook conversation among some Maryville College faculty and staff members led to an effort to support those students through what became the #BackPorch Project.

“We wanted that message to be heard that we’re here for you and we’re thinking of you,” Sheppard said, noting that the college also has continued resources such as counseling along with other support from faculty and staff.

“The community is still here, and it’s going to be here for them when they are ready to venture back out again,” she said.

To maintain distance while delivering notes of encouragement and essentials from soap to food, they created a drop-off location on the back porch of International House on campus.

“The I-House Back Porch Project is really a project about human connection in a time of social isolation,” Sheppard explained.

Becky Lucas, associate professor of education; psychology professor Crystal Colter; Gabby Kerr, lecturer in management; and Maria Siopsis, associate professor of mathematics, were in the initial group with Sheppard that hatched the idea.

Word spread through the college’s daily email newsletter and a Facebook page, leading to what Sheppard called overwhelming support from not only faculty, staff and alumni but also the local community.

Donations have been so generous they have been used to express appreciation for Maryville College’s essential workers on campus in areas including the physical plant, residence life, food service and security, plus create welcome baskets for about half a dozen Blount Memorial Hospital employees who have opted to stay in college residences instead of returning to their homes during the pandemic.

People have dropped off cinnamon rolls, doughnuts and homemade treats, as well as other food and drinks.

“Students want to be healthy, so things like fresh fruit go quickly,” Sheppard said.

But she noted this wasn’t designed to be a food pantry. The project’s emphasis is on nourishing the students in other ways.

“Notes of encouragement are really helpful to them,” she said, and even at a distance they have maintained or made connections.

An International Club “World Cup Coffee” event that began in person before spring break continued to meet online, with 10 to 20 students every Tuesday, Sheppard said, as well as other student organizations meeting online.

A group of international alumni joined an online meeting with current students, answering some of their concerns about what the work world may look like when they do leave campus. “That call was amazing,” Sheppard said.

Other individuals and groups also have offered to connect with students by phone or online meetings.

Into summer

About 30 students are expected to remain after this week’s end of the spring semester, taking May term or summer classes. “Some are just staying because this is the best or only place for them to stay,” Sheppard said.

Food service in the dining hall is ending with the semester, so the #BackPorchProject helped arrange cooking utensils for residence hall kitchens to which all the students will have access. Alumni also donated other items, from olive oil to dish soap.

Sheppard said the supporters also hope to provide at least a meal a day through the end of the May term. Already Panda Express has provided meals, thanks to a manager who is an MC alum, and the Alcoa Starbucks, where many Maryville students have worked over the years, has provided sandwiches.

Organizers also have been talking with church groups eager to show their support.

They hope to provide weekly treats for the essential workers and Blount Memorial employees, too, to show appreciation and boost their spirits.

Opportunities all around

Sheppard noted that many people in the community could use support from those around them these days.

While the students have enjoyed much support, she said, “I would call on the community to take the time to look around them and find those in need closest to them, and take time to thank the helpers.”

“One of our students said to me that she can’t wait until she is able to pay this forward,” Sheppard said.

“Now more than ever, people need and value the interactions with others, and I think there is likely a group in all of our lives that we could support right now,” she said.

Amy Beth earned her degree from West Virginia. She joined The Daily Times in 2016 on the education beat covering Alcoa, Maryville and Blount County school systems.

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