While health care workers take care of coronavirus patients, these Maryland student volunteers are watching the kids

Three times a week, Eni Owoeye leaves her West Baltimore home at 7 a.m. and drives to Locust Point for a babysitting job. Her compensation for the eight-hour stretch? The gratitude of the parents — both health care providers whose lives are stretched thin by the pandemic.

“They say ‘thanks’ a lot, though they don’t have to,” said Owoeye, 20, a volunteer for MD COVIDsitters, a nonprofit network offering child care and other household services (grocery shopping, pet-sitting) to hospital workers in Maryland, Washington, D.C., and northern Virginia.

Many of the group’s 236 volunteers are medical students who want to give back during the crisis. Owoeye, an environmental studies major at New York University, signed up for another reason.

“My mom is a COVID-19 nurse at [University of Maryland Medical Center],” she said. “I remember what it felt like, when I was younger, when she had to work and it was just me and my siblings at home. Now I’m entertaining these kids and taking away that anxiety.”

For two weeks, Owoeye has cared for the family’s two daughters, 12 and 9, while their parents work, free of family concerns.

“I’ve done mentorship programs in the past, empowering young women and strengthening their self-image,” Owoeye said. “On the flip side, I’m Black and the children are white, and it’s enriching to have that personal communication — especially in this divisive climate where races don’t interact on a regular basis.”

Begun in March, the MD COVIDsitters program — one of 20 such branches worldwide — has provided services to 75 health care workers, including some in Baltimore City and Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Howard and Harford counties. Volunteers are male and female, age 17 and up and are matched with clients near their homes, said Ankita Gautum, co-founder of the group. A fourth-year medical student at Ross University, Gautum had her hospital internship delayed by the outbreak.

“We wanted to help those on the front lines any way we could,” said Gautum, 30, of Upper Marlboro. “By doing acts of kindness, volunteers can network and show health care providers what kind of workers they’ll be in the future.”

Two weeks ago, volunteer Haley Suh got the call: an orthopedic surgeon in her Ellicott City community needed help to care for her 6-year-old son.

“He and I read books, took a walk and played soccer,” said Suh, 20, a junior neuroscience major at the University of Maryland. Afterward, the doctor offered to let Suh shadow her at UMMC and, perhaps, to help in her research lab there.

“It’s cool to see all of this unfold,” Gautum said. “One doctor said that during a pandemic, health care providers must choose between family and work. If they choose family, then patients die. COVIDsitters, she said, was ‘the antidote’ to that situation.”

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