Jessica Thomas is a second-year Physician Assistant Studies student whose desire to work with people as a health care professional spurred her to volunteer with Meals on Wheels of Durham in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Jessica Thomas
Jessica Thomas

Thomas, from Asheboro, North Carolina, said volunteers must follow several newer protocols, including wearing a mask and participating in contactless meal drop off, in order to best protect those receiving meal services from the virus.

“You have good interactions,” Thomas said. “We exchange some words and get a chance to express gratitude. It’s good for me, too, to see a happy face during these times.”

Thomas volunteered multiple times in April, alongside other PA students, when the virus paused student clinical rotations.

While volunteering, Thomas said she realized how important a community can be for older adults, especially if they might be experiencing isolation.

“Older adults might find it challenging to get food in a safe way,” Thomas said. “Meals on Wheels overcomes barriers of cost and transportation and adds the benefit of protection from exposure.”

Thomas chose to volunteer with Meals on Wheels as a part of an elective medical management course. As a part of her second year of study, PA students must volunteer within the community.

Paul Chelminski, the PA program director, said medical education at the UNC School of Medicine has always emphasized that care of patients and communities cannot limit itself to applying modern technological medicine.

“Students and providers must never lose sight that meeting the basic needs of people is what allows good medical care to work,” Chelminski said. “The UNC PA program practices this philosophy and is fortunate to have students like Jessica Thomas who instinctively embrace it.”

According to Meals on Wheels America, the organization has seen a nationwide increase of nearly 25 percent of seniors requesting meals, and they have delivered more than 56 percent more meals per week since the pandemic began, despite a drop in volunteers.

Thomas hopes to volunteer with Meal on Wheels after PA school.

“I had a really good experience,” Thomas said. “I can definitely see myself volunteering again once my program requirements are completed.”

The Physician Assistant Studies program is housed in the UNC School of Medicine Department of Allied Health Sciences. Paul Chelminski (’95 MD, ’03 MPH) has served as program director since its inception in 2015.

Lizzy Laufters, public relations and communications intern