University of Alberta medical student Virginia Goetz’s patient care expertise led her to being a valuable volunteer for The Mustard Seed homeless shelter in Calgary. Photo courtesy The Mustard Seed

Medical student comes to aid of homeless

By 
  • June 26, 2020

CALGARY -- When the University of Alberta in Edmonton ceased campus activities in response to COVID-19, Virginia Goetz immediately looked around for an opportunity to aid Albertans most vulnerable to the pandemic.

She didn’t have to look far.

The third-year doctor of medicine student’s decision to volunteer at The Mustard Seed emergency shelter in her hometown of Calgary was a no-brainer. After all, her mother, Rosanne, is the director of communications and marketing for the Christian humanitarian organization.

The 27-year-old Catholic was among a group of helpers brought on board to support Calgary’s homeless population during the infancy of the epidemic. The regular volunteer groups were let go so that The Mustard Seed could observe the City of Calgary’s procedures for limiting the spread of the disease.

“Virginia coming in was amazing,” said Andrew Gusztak, the volunteer resources manager for The Mustard Seed. “She was probably one of 30 volunteers who signed up in the early days to kind of keep the ship afloat and work with us through the changes we needed to make regarding safety.”

Goetz, also a research assistant at the U of A, started her service on March 23, arming guests with the hygiene (shampoo, toothbrush, razors) and clothing items (underwear, socks) they needed to stay at the shelter.

“My mom and I went to the sorting room and would go through to ensure the items were in good condition, and then we would put together packages that would be given to the people coming into the shelter,” said Goetz.

Within a couple of weeks, Goetz also began working in the health and wellness centre established in The Mustard Seed’s downtown hub building on 11th Street SW. Another isolation shelter was set up at First Alliance Church in southeast Calgary to ensure physical-distancing guidelines were followed.

Conducting swab tests, serving meals, distributing hygiene packages and interfacing with clients were among the many responsibilities carried out by Goetz during a typical day inside the quarantine zone.

“It was fun to go in to help our guests’ stay in isolation for 24 to 48 hours be as enjoyable as possible,” she said.  “We offered phones with Netflix and provided them with Internet access and phones with pre-paid data so they could catch up with friends and family. It was great to see them being comfortable and safe with us.”

The fact that the Mustard Seed has thus far not experienced any outbreaks is a testament to the introduction of the correct safety measures. Gusztak credits the efficiency of Goetz and other volunteers as the chief architects behind this accomplishment.

Goetz’s stint with The Mustard Seed, which ended in early June due to the start of the U of A summer semester, has given her insight she will carry with her as she works toward her medical degree. In addition to observing addiction treatments — something she hadn’t witnessed before — she gained a more in-depth understanding of chronic homelessness.

“I definitely have a more open mind and more informed perspective now that I got to work in the centre and hear life stories from the guests and The Mustard Seed team.”

Her days buzzed with so much activity that she didn’t ponder that she was doing essential work on the frontlines. There was one moment that made it clear she was providing vital contributions.

“Some donors came to donate money one day when I was working in the isolation centre. One of them was (former Calgary Flames captain) Lanny McDonald.

“When we went to grab the donation from him and his team — we were all in our scrubs —  they began clapping for us. I was like, ‘what, why are they clapping?’ Then I realized they appreciated our work for protecting vulnerable populations.

“I thought to myself, ‘I guess I am making a difference.’ ”

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