In 2010, Erica Sokol was a student at the University of Florida and was looking for a volunteer experience to prepare her for a career in healthcare. She started volunteering at UF Health Shands Hospital in the pediatric unit, but found her volunteer time at the hospital was being spent doing clerical tasks and not directly helping to meet the needs of patients, especially those children who she saw alone in the hospital week after week. Erica saw a need- children and families in need of support- and came up with a solution. She recruited her classmates and started a unique buddy program, in which herself and a handful of other students, were paired with children in the pediatric oncology unit and visited each week, sometimes even several times a week.
After participating in and directing this program at Shands for 2+ years, and seeing its impact, she determined that as a student-run program it could be scaled to reach many more patients and families. In September 2013, Erica established StudentsCare, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization to help bring this program to hospitals and college campuses across the country. Erica spent the next two years developing StudentsCare and the hospital buddy program model that exists today, simultaneously earning her Masters degree in Nonprofit Leadership from the University of Pennsylvania. During this time, Erica was contacted by hundreds of college students across the country who were hoping to bring StudentsCare to their campus.
By early 2016, Erica had launched 4 student chapters and Hospital Buddy Programs at Michigan State University and Sparrow Hospital; St. Louis University and Ronald McDonald House of St. Louis; University of Pennsylvania and Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia; and one in her hometown of Miami at University of Miami and Holtz Children’s Hospital.
In January 2017, StudentsCare received their first grant from the very prestigious William R. Kenan, Jr. Charitable Trust, allowing StudentsCare to continue to grow. The grant proposal aimed for 6 new programs to be in operation by the end of 2017. The grant also allowed StudentsCare to hire its first full-time staff. Erica would now be able to focus her time and effort full-time on growing StudentsCare as CEO of the organization. Tami Robinson, a long-time volunteer for StudentsCare and former school teacher, would become StudentsCare’s first Program Manager to ensure the continued success of all buddy hospital programs.
When the coronavirus pandemic struck in March 2020 and students were no longer able to visit in hospitals, under Erica’s leadership, the staff and board decided to expand StudentsCare’s mission to serve isolated seniors, who were greatly effected by COVID-19. In just a few months, we had partnered with several senior living facilities across Florida, Pennsylvania, and Arizona and we had our Buddies serving hundreds of seniors, providing weekly phone calls and video chats to keep them company. By August, we were also able to resume pediatric visits virtually.
We look forward to continuing to write our story…