Today we’d like to introduce you to Erica Sokol.
Erica, can you briefly walk us through your story – how you started and how you got to where you are today.
In 2010, I was a pre-med student at the University of Florida and volunteer at the local hospital. While volunteering, I often saw children alone in their rooms. Volunteers were not being directed to meet the needs of these children, and instead were given clerical tasks. I came up with the idea of recruiting reliable and caring college students to provide consistent support to these kids. One of the first patients I met was an 8-year-old boy, Jordan. Jordan had an aggressive form of Leukemia and was in the hospital for 16 months before he passed away. Shortly after, I asked all the volunteers to share their favorite memories with Jordan. They shared stories of playing games and laughing with Jordan, but what really stood out to me was that almost all of them mentioned that Jordan often told them to “just sit with me.”To Jordan, what really mattered was having the company of someone who cared. This simple and genuine act of compassion by the volunteers helped make Jordan’s final days, happy ones. Seeing this impact inspired me to create StudentsCare andbring this buddy program to kids like Jordan, across the country.
In September 2013, I established StudentsCare as a Florida not for profit corporation with the goal of providing support to hospitalized children across the country. I decided not to pursue medical school and instead went on to become certified as a Child Life Specialist and earn my Masters degree in Nonprofit Leadership from the University of Pennsylvania. In January 2017, I received a grant from The William R. Kenan, Jr. Charitable Trust to work full-time as CEO of StudentsCare, alongside a Program Manager and diverse board of directors.
Today, we have a team of 4 staff members and 9 board members, helping to facilitate programs in 11 hospitals across 8 states, including 3 in Miami-Dade county. These programs are providing fun, friendship, and support to long-term pediatric patients and their families and promoting compassion and empathy among future healthcare providers.
We’re always bombarded by how great it is to pursue your passion, etc. – but we’ve spoken with enough people to know that it’s not always easy. Overall, would you say things have been easy for you?
When people ask how I started a nonprofit at such a young age and have grown it to be a national organization, I often tell them it takes two things: passion and perseverance. It hasn’t been an easy path. I’ve been turned down by hospitals and funders and although it feels like a failure at the time, ultimately it is a learning experience and motivates me to keep moving forward. I’ve learned to find others that share my passion and to explore all opportunities that I’m presented with because you never know where they might lead. My biggest challenge has been finding sustainable funding, but I keep persevering, celebrating victories, learning from failures, exploring new opportunities, and remembering each day the true heroes- the kids- who I am fighting for.
So let’s switch gears a bit and go into the StudentsCare story. Tell us more about the business.
StudentsCare establishes chapters on college campuses and develops partnerships with local hospitals to facilitate pairing of students with long-term pediatric patients. The students’ small actions, such as bringing in a gift for a patient or offering a parent a break to get a cup of coffee, have a big impact on patients and families experience in the hospital.
While several similar programs exist, we offer an innovative approach to providing support services to pediatric patients. First, by involving only undergraduate college students as volunteers, we bring a vibrant and youthful component to the hospital setting. Second, we ensure that each patient is being met with support by consistent volunteers, whereas with other programs, volunteers are not often assigned to specific patients. Hospitalized children, who are often under stress, feel more comfortable and at ease with familiar volunteers. A patient’s father once told us “It’s not often that volunteers become family, but that’s exactly what this program does.” One of our teenage patients expressed “To the students, I wasn’t a ‘cancer kid’; I was just someone who needed a friend. I don’t know if I could have gone through the treatment and survived it without them.”
Part of our ability to recruit and retain qualified and committed volunteers stems from the value and quality volunteer experience we are providing. One volunteer noted, “[This] was the first time as a volunteer that I really felt needed. I felt like I was a crucial part of that health care team and that without me it wouldn’t go as smoothly.” We also aim for our students pursuing healthcare careers to become compassionate providers with good bedside manner. Another student commented, “I now have a thorough understanding of the emotional and mental hardships my future patients and their families might face, and I am better equipped to alleviate those aspects of my future patient’s health.”
Has luck played a meaningful role in your life and business?
This is an interesting question and reminds me of a quote by Paul Newman “I wanted, I think, to acknowledge Luck: the chance of it, the benevolence of it in my life, and the brutality of it in the lives of others; made especially savage for children because they may not be allowed the good fortune of a lifetime to correct it.”
When I was in college, I worked as a counselor at one of Paul Newman’s SeriousFun Network camps for seriously ill children. This quote was often referenced, and it always stood out to me. I think I’ve definitely have been blessed with good fortune in my life… I was born into a loving and supportive family, with a very close and large extended family. I have two hard-working parents who started their own business while raising three young kids. I was lucky to have Florida Prepaid and a Bright Futures scholarship, so I do not have any student loans. I was lucky that my parents were able to support me through school, which allowed me to pursue volunteer opportunities, which ultimately led me to start StudentsCare. I am lucky to have parents who taught me the importance of giving back to others at a young age. Most recently, I have been lucky to find a loving and loyal partner who has been equally lucky in life.
I recognize though that my journey to where I am today would have been a lot harder, and possibly very different, had I been born into other circumstances. When things get tough, acknowledging my luck in life helps to keep things in perspective.
- $25 provides 1 game/activity for a hospitalized child
- $80 provides 1 month of buddy support to a hospitalized child
- $125 provides an End-of-chemo celebration to a child fighting cancer
- $500 provides 6 months of buddy support to a hospitalized child
- Website: www.students-care.org
- Phone: 305-814-3950
- Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Instagram: www.instagram.com/studentscareorg
- Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/StudentsCareOrg/
- Twitter: www.twitter.come/studentscareorg